Federalist No. 10

Voters—particularly in the Evergreen State—are fond of lamenting that "there’s no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans," and that parties ought to "stand for something." Of course, many of these voters also wailed last year when the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that, gosh, political parties are private groups after all with a 1st-Amendment-protected right to free assembly, including the right to control how their candidates get nominated.  The corollary to Duverger’s Law is that—in general elections—parties will try to minimize their differences in order to capture the political center, with the resulting focus (baffling to my French wife) on candidates rather than on ideology.  The ideological battles, then, are shifted to the nomination process.  It is no coincidence that the movement towards widespread state Presidential caucuses and primary elections has followed the increasing role of television advertising in political campaigns.

Before television came to play such a dominant role, nominees were selected by the party faithful, who were just that; they volunteered their time and energy, they did favors and kept cronies, they argued over the platform and (usually) toed the party line.  Most Americans had little input into the nomination process, which took place in the proverbial "smoke-filled room."  Meanwhile in the state of Washington, voters felt a sufficient abhorrence of "faction" to institute the blanket primary, allowing anyone to vote for the candidates of any party in primary elections "without a declaration of political faith or adherence on the part of the voter."  So long as primaries played a lesser role in nominating Presidential candidates (and so long as the Washington delegations remained negligibly small), the national parties saw little need to challenge Washington’s "impure" primaries.

As presidential politics entered the age of television, national campaigning became much more expensive.  Running for the nomination of one’s party required a greater investment of time and money.  To minimize the waste from unsuccessful intra-party campaigning, the parties decided that the first primary contests should take place in small states with "retail" political markets, so that unviable candidates could be weeded out before the candidates presented themselves to the larger television markets.  Thus the privileged status of Iowa and New Hampshire.  Soon voters in other states (and unsympathetic to the advertising pressures on the parties) began to agitate that their primaries be advanced, lest the nominees be selected before their primaries take place.  Note that while the parties are private organizations, the primary elections and caucuses are at least partially funded by the states.  The states agree to this because the (local) voters demand it, but the (national) parties agree to this because they receive state-financed polling data.

Of course, the type of primary will influence the nature of the results.  The greater party affiliation required by the primary, the more extreme the candidates will be.  As immoderate as Washington’s politics have been, Washington’s blanket primary may have been the most moderate sampling of presidential candidates available prior to the general election.  But, just as many political operatives prefer lower voter turnout to minimize statistical deviation, both national parties determined that allowing "unfaithful" voters to participate in primary elections would taint the sample, eventually compelling the state parties to bring the suit that ended the blanket primary.

My own experience with presidential primaries in Washington is limited, but I believe it illustrates that the nature of the primary matters less than the motivation of the voter.  I gave the caucus a miss in 1988, as apparently many other did; Washington’s delegations to the national conventions were pledged to Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Pat Robertson.  My youthful idealism was still intact in 1992, when I attended my Democratic caucus (in the heart of Darkest Bellevue) and voted for Al Franken Paul Tsongas.  I even hung around to insist that our district caucus consider adding "payment of outstanding United Nations dues" to the party platform (how precious!).

The blanket primary had its greatest virtue/flaw in elections when one party had no serious contest, because faithful members of the uncontested party could sabotage the other party’s results.  In 1996, I considered participating in the Republican primary in order to vote for whom I considered to be the weakest candidate, but I couldn’t make up my mind who that should have been.  In 2000, however, I wanted to vote in the Republican primary for John McCain, not just because I thought he would be a better president than Bush, but because I thought it would make for a better campaign.  Washington’s primary rules were in flux that year, and in order to vote for McCain one had to (falsely, in my case) declare that one considered oneself a Republican.  Before I could commit this fraud I had to ask my grandfather (the original Yellow Dog Democrat) for permission, which was easy enough to secure as he was voting for McCain as well.  In the end, I managed to find my own share of ignominy before Scalia could give a shout-out to his peeps.

Even though I had no grounds to question the apparent media consensus that Kerry had the nomination sewn up, I was too terrified of another four years of the Bush Administration not to do what little I could to influence the Democratic nomination, so yesterday morning I brewed a pot of dark, soul-clarifying coffee, filled my thermos and drove to the neighborhood high school for a . . . discourse with desperate Democrats, chary Independents, and devious Republicans, all claiming to be Democrats For A Day.

Proving the words of Will Rogers, the lack of preparation in evidence was cause for all faithful Democrats to despair.  Several hundred people crowded into the cafeteria, searching for their precincts, which were only demarcated by hand-made signs held aloft by the most recent arrival taller than 180cm.  Forty-five minutes of Brownian motion was brought to an end by the district chair taking wayward voters one by one calling out their precincts, and asking those precincts to make their location known.  I imagine our precinct was not alone in not already having a Precinct Committee Officer who would be familiar with the caucus procedures; as it was, our hastily-elected-by-acclamation caucus chair spent those forty-five minutes reading and explaining the caucus rules, only to have to repeat the process with a couple of late arrivals who challenged his interpretation of its Byzantine decreta.

Twenty-four registered voters signed in at our precinct, which had been allotted five delegates to the legislative district caucus on 01 May 2004.  A candidate would therefore require 4 (3.6) votes to meet the 15% threshhold to be eligible to receive delegates.  The initial vote:


At this point, the caucus chair misread the rules, and no one challenged him: according to the rules, only Dean or Kerry should have been eligible to receive delegates from our precinct.  Instead, the caucus chair (who had already admitted he would sooner vote for Bush than Dean) permitted candidates who didn’t receive at least 15% of the first vote to remain eligible for the second vote.  As I had recorded my support for one such candidate (Edwards; the caucus chair was the other Edwards supporter in the first vote), I was undermotivated to correct this interpretation (admittedly, I had not totally familiarized myself with the rules, either).

We then decided to let one person make their case for each of Dean, Kerry, Clark, and Edwards, and it fell to me to champion Edwards.  I argued that, on the issues, the Democratic candidates are effectively interchangeable; I would vote for any of them over Bush.  The deciding factor in the primary, then, should be electability, and I thought Edwards presented himself best on television.  At the time of the Washington Caucus, Democrats should have been asking themselves, If not Kerry, then who?  Compared to Edwards, Kerry is so uninspiring.  Democrats who support Kerry have convinced themselves that Kerry’s record of taking orders from Gen. Westmoreland and the Senate Democrat leadership are somehow attractive to swing voters; they should talk to President Dole about the electoral importance of war records.  As an orator, Edwards combines the optimism of Reagan and the empathy of Clinton; in a debate, he’d wipe the floor with Prince George.

I guess I was too cynical for my caucus; the second vote:


This resulted in our five delegates being allotted as follows: two for Kerry, two for Dean, one for Clark.  Note that, according to the rules, they probably should have been allotted three for Kerry and two for Dean (the caucus chair voted for Clark the second time around).  I nominated myself for alternate delegate, and I got the #2 spot.  Some other poor sap let himself be elected Precinct Committee Officer (he gets to spend his August distributing yard signs) on the dubious grounds of his being a Poli Sci major.

In describing the "loyalty oath" that the Democrats would ask caucus participants to take following the repeal of Washington’s blanket primary, a newspaper article stated "voters will be asked to sign a declaration that they intend to vote for a Democrat in November."  That was a mischaracterization of the actual declaration I signed yesterday, but my reply to the first locution was to have been "I promise to vote for a Democrat in November if the party promises to run one."  Kerry won’t officially get the nomination until July, but he has time to re-invent himself several times over; I imagine he’ll bear a passing resemblance to a Democrat for a week or two.

No comments:

Post a Comment