In praise of primaries

This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 11: You can see why journalists love things like the New Hampshire primary. They give us something to talk about. Better yet, we can tell you beforehand what’s going to happen and explain afterward why it didn’t and what it all means. Which might explain why a lot of people don’t love journalists. But they should still love primaries.

In the first place, a lot of people hate politics and politicians even more than the media but, to paraphrase Leon Trotskii, even if you’re not interested in government it’s interested in you. In the second place, primaries, caucuses and other such convoluted political insider processes are a really good way of putting candidates through a fool-and-rogue filter before serving them to regular voters in a general election.

I know a lot of people find American primaries, caucuses and straw polls chaotic and contrived. But you don’t have to be a fan of Mitt Romney – trust me on this one – to think it beats buying a pig in a poke. In this case it’s found the Tea Party’s favourites wanting one by one… not what most Republicans may have wanted, but better now than in a general election.

I grant that the unseemly scramble for influential early spots in the primary schedule has pushed contests too far toward New Year’s Day and threatens to spill backward into Christmas. And the states that won are hardly typical: Iowa almost all white, heavily evangelical and agricultural; New Hampshire very white, very New England and semi-libertarian; South Carolina very southern and 30% black.

And I’ll give the critics one more thing: the rules are incredibly complicated. For instance Iowa Republicans just held not a “primary” but a grassroots precinct “caucus,” mostly to elect delegates to March 10 county caucuses which elect delegates to April 21 district caucuses which elect delegates to the June 16 state convention.

Iowa Democrats, in presidential election years, cast binding votes in their precinct caucuses for county convention delegates pledged to a particular candidate (unless a sitting president is unchallenged). But on the Republican side they don’t. Instead they hand out blank paper on which citizens write whoever they like for the GOP nomination, which the June state convention ignores in selecting delegates for the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August.

So why care? Because people who get up early to sit on folding chairs in chilly auditoriums for up to two hours to bicker about soybean subsidies or county vice-chairs, without being political insiders, are opinion leaders among ordinary voters. Their judgement reflects what many more people will eventually think.

The chaotic variety of rules also helps the process work. The Iowa caucus is “closed,” restricted to party members. New Hampshire’s primary, which sends delegates to the RNC pledged to a particular candidate, is “semi-closed”: you must be or become a registered Republican to vote in it. (Though you can deregister immediately.) Meanwhile in South Carolina’s “open” primary anyone can vote.

By the time someone has been through these very different states and systems they have not only endured endless scrutiny by citizens, party members, journalists and fundraisers, they’ve courted the Midwest, New England and the South. They’ve been through the crucible.

If you’ve read James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds you’ll know the general public is much better at choosing between options than at determining which options to consider. That’s why primaries work. And the parties seem to like them.

Not since 1992 have either Democrats or Republicans nominated someone who didn’t win two of these three early contests. Indeed for the GOP South Carolina is 8-0 since 1980. But to win there you must first survive Iowa and New Hampshire.

Of course, despite their elaborate nominating process Americans often get mediocre leaders or worse. But Canadians too have had more than our share of duds we didn’t even get to pick ourselves after due consideration. Wouldn’t its current leadership race be more useful to the NDP, and the nation, if candidates had to win over party members and Canadians generally in staggered, highly public provincial contests with local rules and flavours, instead of stage-managed debates, backroom manoeuvers and centralized voting?

Given our parliamentary system, I’d actually prefer a return to MPs choosing the leader. But as that’s too radical and “elitist” for these fiercely nonconformist times, who’s up for the B.C. straw poll, the Ontario primary and the Nova Scotia caucus?

UncategorizedJohn Robson