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The NH GOP primary debate loser was…

February 8, 2016

The primary process, at least as it is now. 

People that watch debates at this stage are generally political nerds, campaign operatives and media employees. They are as much attracted to the process as they are to a particular candidate.

This year is a little different. More than most years there is a sense that something very fundamental to the national existence is at stake in the 2016 election. More ordinary folks are rating the our election process as being everything from too cumbersome to outright corrupt.

Given that we already have a proven instance of questionable campaign tactics by the Cruz campaign that may well have affected the outcome in Iowa, and the inexplicable exclusion of Carly Fiorina, (who, unlike Chris Christie, actually earned a delegate in Iowa) from the debate by ABC News, arguably the most left-leaning of all the major news outlets, it isn’t hard to see why they feel that way.

With that in mind it was interesting to listen to the water cooler crowd’s main take-away from the latest GOP debate.

Some did not watch the debate, but it wasn’t due to early campaign fatigue. Many felt that the debate was only about impressing the 1.3 million New Hampshire residents. Those that did watch concurred that it was about the desire of some also-ran candidates to post at least a token win in their columns.

The concerted attack on Marco Rubio was not about whether he would be the most viable general election candidate. It was about keeping donors in the game by adding a few points to their New Hampshire vote totals.

That was made even more obvious because all the arguments about Senator Rubio being unqualified by virtue of his first term status apply as equally to Ted Cruz as they do to Rubio.

While Senator Rubio may be short on legislative accomplishments compared to John Kasich’s 18-year congressional career, Senator Cruz’s most visible accomplishment to date is that he read Dr. Seuss for 22 hours in 2013  in a failed attempt to defund Obamacare, leading to his water-cooler nick-name as the “Sam-I-Am” candidate.

Rubio is reported to have actually accomplished at least a part of that goal in the 2016 budget.

A particular irritant to many was the deliberate “establishment” attempt to unseat Rubio based on the “it’s not his turn” argument.  If anything, that tactic should cement him as being outside the establishment, the national media bias notwithstanding.

One man, although a vociferous Trump supporter, nevertheless pointed out that while Jeb Bush was castigating Rubio for being scripted, the former Florida governor never lets up about his eight hurricanes, just as Governor Kasich repeats the line about having nearly single-handedly achieved the last balanced federal budget 20 years ago (actually it was an amendment, not a budget), and Chris Christie uses Hurricane Sandy and 9/11 as a campaign tactic ad nauseum.

Another noted that it seemed to him that in the wake of the debate, the media was already shoveling dirt on Rubio’s grave, prompting him to ask what right they had to deprive him of his right to choose a candidate to oppose the country’s slide into full-blown socialism.

That observation started another debate.

Do we need to retire the current primary process?

There have been proponents of a national primary before, but the noise is louder and the arguments more germane this time.

In large part that’s due to the bloated GOP field. Underneath the so-called substantive issues posed and argued by the moderators and candidates, the Saturday performance felt like a group of sugar-deprived school children all vying for the last cookie on the plate.

The primary process was invented to give each individual state population a voice in deciding what issues were important to them, with a view toward breaking the European tradition of royal succession only being interrupted by civil wars.

In the days of horse and buggy campaigns and even through most of the 20th century, that model served its purpose up to a point, simply because it was the only game in town.

What doesn’t work is the need for candidates to constantly tailor their positions to appeal to the predominate voter/donor base in each state. That’s why you come out with each candidate becoming a patchwork quilt of narrow sound bites. Unless you watch every single debate, you simply have no idea what each person believes.

People wonder why a candidate seems to be pro-life in one debate and pro-choice in the next, or moderately left in one state and full-on socialist in the other. It isn’t their political conscience that shifts, it’s because they have to pander to the local interests to get their votes.

That’s also how you get presidents that seem to abandon their campaign promises immediately upon getting elected.

People that did watch all the 2008 debates knew exactly what Barack Obama was going to do if elected, and he proved them right. That’s why whining that he shape-shifted once elected are so groundless. He just played the game very, very well.

Do national offices demand a national primary campaign?

The only national election we have is the presidential contest. Every four years, come the second Tuesday in November, everyone that’s interested has to go to the polls on the same day and vote.

Why not make the choosing the slate of candidates in that contest national as well?

One primary vote four to six months before the general election would seem to be the most fair and equitable way to define the party hopefuls. Pick the top 25-30% or so in that election and send them on their way to the general election jousting matches.

Remember, the primary process doesn’t elect candidates, it awards delegates.

The national parties have done what they could to try to make the process fair. One attempt is to even out the playing field by allowing the smaller, less populous states to vote first, but due to the various and complicated delegate award rules, the process can still leave many voters totally left out of the process.

For instance in the states that have winner-take-all rules, if a candidate wins by even one vote, all the people on the losing end have essentially been disenfranchised by the process itself.

That wasn’t the underlying theory of the constitution, and it is one of the things most often cited as a reason to revamp the system.

Of course it isn’t that easy. If it was we would already be doing it.

First  there is the popular if erroneous perception that individual state primaries give the people more of  a voice.

Given the aforementioned candidate propensity to pander to local interests given the realities of the primary structure,  it’s hard to see how that argument still applies on a national scale in the electronic age.

Also, once several primaries have passed, the current staggered voting dates result in later voting states assuming the contest is already decided, and that depresses voter turnout. The states that vote last, such as California with its 546 Democrat and 172 Republican delegates might find that one candidate already has enough cushion to make their vote irrelevant.

Underlying the national primary movement, if there is one, is the feeling that it would be a lot harder to rig 50 elections (or 51 including Washington DC, which has 3 electoral college votes and the territories and possessions, which can vote in primaries, but not the general election) all held on the same date than it is to influence an outcome in one or a handful of states.

Second, the changes might result in the elimination or modification of the current delegate-based nominating format. The candidates would be chosen by some variant of  a popular vote. Political parties don’t want to give up that much control. As it now stands, they can cultivate and manipulate localized demographic groups fairly easily. In a national one-date primary, not so much.

Third, in order to preserve the founding fathers ideal of individuals owning the government and not the other way around, it would require some sort of statistical weighting process to equalize the impact of high population states on the process.

No one has yet hit upon a universally acceptable way to do that, leaving the top 10 most populous states in the catbird seat in a straight one-man one-vote scenario. Given that these states have trended more liberal, you could have a national primary numerically controlled by one political persuasion, exactly the scenario that the process we have now was meant to eliminate.

For now, and assuming you are one of the voters that actually make it to the polls, about all you can do is to catch as many debates as possible.  DVR them, watch them, or read about them, but at least try to become informed.

Come 2017, it might be time to advocate for a change.

From → op-ed

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