If all the nation's political media suddenly up and quit today and there were absolutely no stories on the 16 (or so) presidential contenders between now and the November 2016 elections, it might not make much of a difference.
That's according to a theory from Emory University political science professors Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster. They say that in the general election, the vast majority of the American public is going to vote they way they're going to vote no matter what. And increasingly, the way Americans vote is against a party, not for one.
"A growing number of Americans have been voting against the opposing party rather than for their own party," they wrote Thursday in Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball weekly newsletter.
How do they arrive at such a claim? How can you tell the difference between voting for or against something? Abramowitz and Webster analyzed data from the American National Election Studies and found that, since the 1980s, voters have become incredibly loyal to parties, yet they publicly identify less and less with a party. The amount of voters identifying as independent, but leaning one way or the other, has surged to a record level, they note.
For decades, the American National Election Studies have been asking voters to rate their feelings of the other party on an aptly named "feeling thermometer scale," from zero being the most negative views to 100 being the most positive.
They found that the party supporters who didn't mind the opposing party voted for that opposing party about half the time. But those people make up a very small group on each side.
By contrast, 87 percent of party supporters who don't like the opposing party voted consistently for their own candidates.
So people are reluctant to identify with a party, but they're voting more than ever along party lines. That could only mean one thing, per Abramowitz and Webster: People vote along party lines because they're voting against a party, rather than for something they believe in.
It's called "negative partisanship." Abramowitz and Webster, again:
The rise of negative partisanship means that very few Republicans or independents who lean toward the Republican Party will vote for Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. Likewise, very few Democrats or independents who lean toward the Democratic Party will vote for Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, or any of the other potential Republican candidates.
According to the professors, part of the reason for this polarization is that in American society, being Republican or Democrat is increasingly reflected in people's social characteristics and values. A person who does yoga and orders almond milk lattes and says they value LGBT rights? We could probably all assume that person is a Democrat, even if they don't publicly identify with the Democratic Party, and very often be correct. Partisan media doesn't help us empathize with the other side, either.
This is normally the part of the story where we'd say the presidential race will likely come down to an incredibly small -- and shrinking -- slice of the electorate: true independents. But Abramowitz and Webster say we can largely predict that group's voting pattern, too:
Voters with no partisan preference at all will probably make up less than 10% of the electorate, and if 2016 is like other recent elections, they will end up splitting their votes fairly evenly between the parties.
So if everyone's going to vote the way we predict they're going to vote, how can we measure which candidate has an edge? Simple, Abramowitz and Webster say: Identify which party has more voters.
That edge, at least before the actual voting, goes to Democrats. A recent Pew Research Center survey they point to found that Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents outnumber Republicans and Republican-leaning independents -- 48 percent to 39 percent. But GOP turnout is often higher, particularly in midterm elections. Thus, it largely comes down to which side gets more of its reliable voters to the polls ... to vote against the other party.
This is all a vicious cycle. The more politicians bicker, the more voters get a bad taste in their mouths for the other party and vote against the opponent. The more that happens, the more incentive politicians have to bicker.
Abramowitz and Webster take us out with their conclusion: "Negative partisanship is likely to remain an important feature of American politics for the foreseeable future."
Super. At least we in the media can all quit our jobs and go become ice cream truck drivers. Where we'll be more needed.