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We look at Movement to the Middle

April 30, 2012 1:10 p.m.


Scott Dickey - CEO, Competitor Group Inc., member of Movement to the Middle

Ron King, SDSU Political Science Professor

Related Story: Politics: We Look At Movement To The Middle


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. I am not a Republican, I am not a Democrat. I am an American. That's the signature phrase of a new political movement in San Diego called the movement to the middle. Last week, more than two dozen business leaders publicly switched their party affiliation to Independent and invited other voters to do the same. This comes on the heels of mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher's switch from Republican to Independent, and most of the new middle men are Fletcher supporters. Critics call the move a political ploy, others say it could be the start of a new day in American politics. I'd like to introduce my guests, Scott Dickey is CEO of competitor group incorporated and a member of movement to the middle.

DICKEY: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Ron King is an SDSU political science professor. Welcome.

KING: Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Did you change your registration last week?

DICKEY: Declined to state.

CAVANAUGH: From what?

DICKEY: From Republican.

CAVANAUGH: Isn't the Republican party a comfortable political home for you anymore?

DICKEY: It isn't, quite frankly, and not just on a local level or throughout the State of California, but nationally for me personally. I'm a fiscal conservative, but I'm also very progressive socially, and the current stance of the GOP for me personally didn't really meet my needs. And there are many of us as a result of last week's announcement, there were many, many more people that feel very much the same way.

CAVANAUGH: Now, did candidate Nathan Fletcher inspire this move?

DICKEY: No question. Nathan's decision, which we all felt very strongly about, those of us who found the movement to the middle last week, he was the inspiration for the decision of forming this new coalition am after many of us just started talking about it, socially. And it's not just people leaving the GOP, it's people leaving both sides of the aisle, really with a desire to move forward and walk away from the political divisiveness that we have here locally and obviously nationally as well.

CAVANAUGH: Scott, from what you're saying, watching the Republican primaries, the Republican presidential primaries unfold must have been an -- a rather difficult experience for you as a Republican.

DICKEY: Well, I think in this day and age, politics and obviously -- it generates a lot of negative campaigning as much as it does positive campaigning. And I think that's really one of the main fundamentally tenants of movement to the middle. We want to change the tone. And yesterday's -- there are great examples all over the news yesterday, locally and nationally. My favorite yesterday was in response to the UT editorial about movement to the middle, and Nathan's bold move away from party politics directly from Carl DeMaio's campaign manager. Ryan Clumpner's quote on the blogs was fascinating to me. He said Nathan Fletcher is nothing more than a slimy politician masquerading as the second coming of Christ. In my world, in the business world, you'd be shown the door within a matter of minutes from a comment like that. But that's the tone and the divisive nature and kind of the alienating attitude that is permeating throughout politics in the State of California. And we're tired of it. And we have gone from in a matter of hours, we have gone from 35 community leaders to now over 50, we've got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that have signed on, that have signed our declaration, that have logged onto the website and given us their e-mail and are looking for leadership from the middle, from the silent majority, from the people that are going to bring politics back in the middle.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you're a persuasive spokesman for this new movement to the middle, but a lot of people look at the man who inspired it, Nathan Fletcher, and they say, you know, he switched from GOP to Independent after trying pretty darn hard to get that GOP endorsement for mayor. So is this really an ideological switch? Is this a switch that really embraces the kind of concepts that you're talking about, or is it a political maneuver?

DICKEY: Well, I think you can answer the question two ways. And let me have at it. It's not an ideological switch for Nathan. I've known Nathan personally for ten years, after the man was married, before he served our country in Iraq, and certainly before he got into the game of politics, the career of politics. And he and I have debated for over a decade the fundamental flaws in a partisan, 2-party system. And what we've seen over the last decade are those parties move further and further and further to the fringe. And it's difficult to fight the status quo. And so his decision to continue to push for the endorsement of the California -- for the GOP here in California made all the sense in the world within the current system. But it came -- there came a time and a point where he had to follow his personal beliefs, and that was that the current system didn't make sense anymore. It's broken, it's not working, we need to move people into a different direction. And I'm not talking about a third party movement, but I'm talking about a movement that's going to bring the parties back into the middle and start to look for opportunities to compromise and stop listening to the fringe rhetoric that we're seeing from all of the politicians on both sides of the aisle.

CAVANAUGH: Let me bring professor Ron King into this. Most of the people involved in this movement, including Nathan Fletcher, let's face it, used to be Republican. And what does this tell you about what's happening in the Republican party?

KING: There are a number of people when you interview them, poll them, and remember, I'm a data wonk, who say they're independent. But if it quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it's a duck. And you say what did you vote for in the last election, are and the priest election? Large number was people who call themselves independents, when we do simulations and analyses of elections, woo we have no trouble at all sorting them.

CAVANAUGH: How do they sort out?

KING: The answer is, by income, by self-interest, by previous voting patterns, we can almost with very small ranges of error predict where they will sit on any two party divide.

CAVANAUGH: So even without this switch that we're talking about now, movement to the middle, we hear that in the last decade, the number of voters who call themselves decline to state, independent voters, that's gone up 50% here in San Diego. What are some of the reasons that you've been able to determine, professor, that people are doing this?

KING: We've had across America more among the Republicans than the Democrat, although both parties have moved somewhat out of the middle, it's been much more than the Republicans than the Democrats, statistically, when we do median opinions on issues. But mostly it's a consequence of the way in which we construct election districts. Political scientists with 90 some odd % probability can predict in a given district whether a Republican or Democrat is going to win. There are almost no competitive districts. We don't have proportional representation elections am therefore in large numbers of districts, there's more fear of a primary fight within your group than an actual competitive election, and that has been driving people to either side. And activists, donors, are further to the side than the middle. Which drives candidates out of the middle.

>> That's the key point. The apathetic majority in the middle now needs to rise in response to exactly what --

KING: But again there's no data there. I'm sorry, but there isn't. The middle might be somewhat apathetic, but it's not because they care a lot and are driven away from the parties. The true middle, those who are truly undecided are on the whole least interested, least caring, least involved, least knowledgeable about politics. This image of a sophisticated middle voter who doesn't know where to turn, overwhelmingly, the more educated, are the more sophisticated and knowledgeable, the more to the southside of the political spectrum.

CAVANAUGH: One of the ways the State of California is trying to remedy that situation where there are no competitive districts, and you have to get more and more to the left or to the right in order to win your primary for -- because everybody knows a Republican is going to win this particular district is to open up the primaries as they have in this particular election. The two top vote getter, no matter what their party are the ones who are going to go onto the general election, do you think that that in itself might have an influence in sort of broadening out the platforms of the parties?

KING: Not much. First of all, overwhelm will, those who are going to vote in a primary know whether the candidate is Republican or Democrat, and those who truly are not especially involved and knowledgeable about politics will have much more difficulty figuring out which candidate sits where.

DICKEY: I love this. I'm a data wonk as well, all right? In business every day, you have to make decisions that are supported not just by your gut, but by quantitative data. The great thing about being a data wonk is that you're looking at hard facts, about you you're looking at historical facts, and I think the point you make, which is the important one, is that the open primary system now has changed the game. And we are at a tipping point. We can look at historical data all day long, it may be a great barometer of what we think is going to happen in the future, but I'll tell you I believe we're at a new place, we're in a new generation of how people are thinking about politics. Why do I have to be a Republican if I'm a fiscal conservative yes I'm pro-environment or pro choice?

CAVANAUGH: Well, then let me ask you then, Scott, why is this movement to the middle not a third party? Why not build up a party around that if there are a lot of people who would embrace that kind of an ideology?

DICKEY: Well, I think wee not my eve, right? To buck the system in its current form with millions of millions of dollars that are being thrown at both sides of the aisle to endorse their fringe candidate, that's a tough, tough battle. So yes, long-term, philosophically, structurally, three voices at the table are always better than two, you can always -- it's not the game of black or white or right versus wrong. But that's a long road to hoe. There are a lot of other groups that have been launched in similar fashion here over the last several years, but in particular last year, there are four or five just here in California. So it's not farfetched, but that's not our initial goal. Our goal is to move the middle electorate toward the poll and try to influence the percent annuals of people who are voting in these primaries. 30-40% historically, if we can move that needle with a moderate showing up at the poll, not the fringe extremist, then we can influence the outcome of this primary.

CAVANAUGH: Professor King?

KING: There's nothing especially new about a talk about moving to the middle. It has occurred over U.S. politics largely from so-called moderate Republicans. Periodically. I believe John Anderson running for president, Ross Perot, for over 50 years, political scientists have perhaps said that to the extent you have a competitive election, in a 2-party system, you will get two parties moving to the middle to the median voter to sound almost identical. And that, for example, in national elections, when they are competitive, as soon as the primary is over, they run to the middle as fast as they can. The other thing is, there's nothing uniquely special about sitting in the middle. The old adage of Texas politics is the only thing down the middle of the road is a yellow stripe and dead armadillo!

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to ask you, professor, it seems like political parties are essential for most candidates' political campaigns in order to get the support and the money they need to keep on going. What happens for a candidate, an independent like Nathan Fletcher if he wants to seek political office beyond what is supposed to be a nonpartisan San Diego mayor's race?

KING: If I could predict the future, I would bet on the ponies.


KING: But what we know from the past is candidates who step outside their party might win an election or two, but their future is bleak.

DICKEY: I think that's the key word in that sentence is the past. And we're talking about the future here. And the middle may not be sexy, it may not be filled with ranker or divisive rhetoric that gets people's attention, where you it's where things get done. And that's the problem we have in the current system, you have the voters overwhelmingly support managed competition, and it takes five years to implement? In my world you get fired in days. It's just unbelievable. Will we've got to move toward the middle where it may not be sexy, but that's where we're going to get solutions brought to the table, we're going to get compromise, and we're going to drive progress. And that's the problem with the political system here in the State of California. To a lesser extent, here in the city. Mayor Sanders has done a very good job of finding the middle and compromise. But we've got divisive candidates on either side of the system right now, in Bob Filner and Carl DeMaio, and you've got a guy who's a true leader right down the middle who's going to lead and get things done.

KING: We've just heard what historically has been the problem of middle candidates. Which is the movement is attached to some personality who will succeed.

DICKEY: I agree.

KING: -- for a short time or fail, probably fail. But it's a matter of advocates and friends who try to say bob or Joe is the middle. If we want to move the political system, we have to talk about our constitutional rules, we have to talk about the way in which districts are drawn.

DICKEY: I agree.

KING: We have to talk about first past the post versus proportional representational reactions and it hurts the association of political change with a particular candidate, the movement seconds or fails, and it dies.

DICKEY: And that's why the initial reaction to suggest that the movement to the middle was a Nathan Fletcher campaign stunt is ridiculous. This is not about Nathan. He was the inspiration. This movement is filled with Nathan supporters, it's also filled with supporters that are on either side for Bob Filner or Carl DeMaio. But this group is about change long-term, and we're going to are here long after the June primary and long after the mayoral election in November.

CAVANAUGH: Well, are you accepting donations then?

DICKEY: We have not moved toward the next stage of the formation. I'm leaving here for a meeting later today where we're talking about where we want move to the middle to go. We're talking about hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that have come over the bow in the last 96 hours, if you will, or a little bit longer now, since we announced last Wednesday. So the formation and exact nature of where movement to the middle is going to go is yet to be seen, but it will take place in very short order.

CAVANAUGH: Isn't it a little squishy as to what movement to the middle means?

DICKEY: On purpose, by design, because we want to see exactly what the tenor and the input is going to be from the people. This is not going to be a group that's going to stand by and identify specific policies and specific candidates out the gate. We're identifying a period of frustration and an alienated majority that's interested in gaging but doesn't know how and is tired of the political rhetoric that exists in the system today. That may not historically be very effective, but again I'm pointing toward the future, I'm not going to spend my tame arguing the data wonk information of the past

CAVANAUGH: I just looked up at the time, and I am out of it.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much.

DICKEY: Thank you appreciate the time.

KING: Good job.