When I was in college, an economics professor mathematically showed the class why mainstream candidates win elections. It made sense at the time, but over the last couple years, I've found myself wondering if he's had to change his math. Because lately, it seems like fringe candidates are becoming the new mainstream.
That professor was on my mind because New York held its state primary elections yesterday. I'd never voted in primaries before, but my mom made me promise to vote this year, so I walked to the local high school to fill out my ballot. Just as I was approaching the school, a young man holding a bunch of pamphlets walked over.
"Have you voted yet today?" he asked me.
He handed me a pamphlet full of progressive candidates. The biggest race was for governor: New Yorkers had to choose between Andrew Cuomo, the sitting governor, and Cynthia Nixon, who played Miranda on "Sex and the City." Both consider themselves environmentalists, but Nixon wants a much more dramatic shift. She talks about completely powering New York with renewable energy by 2050. Her supporters say Cuomo, meanwhile, talks like an environmentalist but plays nice with fossil fuel companies.
I went inside, voted and walked out only to be accosted by yet another progressive pamphlet-pusher (Team Miranda).
"Have you voted yet today?" the second guy asked me.
"Who did you vote for?" I knew that exit polling was a thing, but his question shook me. It seemed so personal.
"I'm not telling you," I replied.
"But that's what Democracy's all about," he complained.
"What? No, it isn't."
"Well, we can agree to disagree."
"No. You can't force people to explain who they voted for. Then they can't vote freely."
"I'm not asking to see your ballot."
"You can ask, but I don't have to answer."
I crossed the street and came upon yet another pamphlet-pusher, this one working for the mainstream Democrats. Unlike the other guys, he was sitting down, looking bored.
"Want a pamphlet?" he asked me.
He handed me a pamphlet and leaned back in his chair, apparently not interested in elaborating. Then he noticed my "I voted sticker."
"Oh, you already voted," he said.
"Yeah, do you want your pamphlet back?" I asked him.
"No, no," he replied. This guy really didn't seem to care. So then why would he ... Oh. I realized what was going on.
"Do you need to hand out a certain number?" I asked him.
"Yep. Just two more bags, then I get paid."
Of course. The progressive pamphlet-pushers actually cared enough to bother people on the street. Their mainstream equivalents were just flunkies. I took another pamplet to lighten his load.
If I were a mainstream politician, I'd be worried. Outsider movements are growing. As Trump demolishes the EPA and talks about bringing back coal, environmentalists get more frustrated. The underlying message seems to be something like this: the right won't practice moderation when it comes to the environment, so why should the left play nice with coal factories? If the planet is headed for disaster, it needs extreme measures, not gentle moderation.
Granted, Cuomo ended up winning the primary. But over the last few years, I've seen rooms full of Bernie Sanders volunteers cold-calling voters, massive rallies for Trump and tent cities on Wall Street. Outsider groups have something the mainstream is missing, something my professor's math couldn't calculate: steam.