Opinion » Ted Rall

Independents Go Home

Open primaries are killing democracy



NEW YORK­—Check out this political mystery: Liberals, aka the Democratic base, are angry. They're so angry that they tried to unseat senior senator and former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman in 2006, who had become synonymous with bipartisanship. Bipartisanship, hell. They're in the mood for payback.

So why is Barack Obama, a bipartisan accommodationist who promises to appoint Republicans to his cabinet and praises Ronald Reagan, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination? Why is Hillary Clinton, militant centrist of the DLC, running a close second?

Mystery No. 2: Liberal primary voters are obsessed with choosing a nominee who can win the general election in November. And yet, according to a hypothetical head-to-head match-up, neither Obama nor Clinton qualifies. The most electable Democrat, found the most recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. match-up poll, was John Edwards.

"Edwards is the only Democrat who beats all four Republicans, and McCain is the only Republican who beats any of the three Democrats [in November 2008]," says Keating Holland, CNN's polling director. But Edwards didn't win a single primary.

What's going on? Why are angry, electability-oriented Democrats voting for the two candidates least likely to win—candidates who want to sing Kumbaya with the Republicans?

As we discussed last week, the media froze out Edwards because their corporate owners were scared of him. But there's a second reason that the Democratic primaries have "gotten terribly off track," in the words of The New York Times' Paul Krugman.

A lot of non-Democrats are voting in Democratic primaries.

Twenty-three states now have so-called "open primaries." Registered independents are allowed to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary. "What's everybody talking about now? Independents," Morris Fiorina, a professor of political science at Stanford says. Huge numbers of Democratic primary voters aren't Democrats at all: 20 percent in the Iowa caucuses, 44 percent in New Hampshire, 23 percent in South Carolina.

As you might expect, candidates whose appeal crosses party lines have benefited from these open primaries. "Obama is winning independents, McCain is winning independents," says Professor Fiorina.

Political scientists differ over the moderating effect of open primaries, but history paints a clear picture. There hasn't been a left-wing Democratic nominee since George McGovern in 1972, or an overtly right-wing Republican one since Barry Goldwater in 1964. (Though they governed differently, Reagan and Bush II campaigned as uniters, not dividinators.) Both parties see open primaries as part of a "big tent" strategy—people who vote for party X in the primaries are said to be likelier to vote for Party X's nominee in the fall. Open primaries are also supposed to winnow out "extreme" candidates (see McGovern and Goldwater, above) while selecting for those with broad appeal to the overall electorate. But the advantages of open primaries—which have yet to be statistically proven—come at a steep price.

As Larry Gerston writes in the San Jose Mercury-News, "people who identify as Democrats or Republicans operate with different opinions than independents. Partisans tend to have stronger opinions on leading issues, are more aware of current events, have well-developed political value sets and tend to be more involved politically on an ongoing basis. For most independents, politics is much more a spectator sport. These folks are more amused than committed, tend to know less about the leading issues and candidates, and commonly operate with a less defined set of political values."

Independents complain that "closed primaries"­—Democratic primaries are only open to Democrats, Republican primaries to Republicans—deny them a voice. In truth, registered independents choose not to vote in primaries. There is no practical reason to register as an independent. If you want to switch from one party's primaries to the other's, all you have to do is fill out a form. And, in the general election, you can vote for any party regardless of party affiliation.

The potential for mischief, on the other hand, is enormous in open primaries: conservatives voting for the worst Democrat, liberals for the worst Republican. Even "honest" independents queer the process by reducing the chances of a hardcore liberal or conservative winning their party's nomination. This year, they're boosting Obama and McCain, neither of whom have generated much enthusiasm from their party's bases. (If these two men face off in November 2008, McCain will enjoy an edge since the GOP tends to better coalesce behind its nominees. Republican party loyalists will also find McCain's right-wing voting record to their liking. Obama, on the other hand, repeatedly voted to fund the Iraq War.)

Polarization is good for democracy. Voters may claim not to like mudslinging campaign battles, but they turn out in greater numbers when the parties nominate candidates whose views are significantly different. In 2000, Gore and Bush were seen as so ideologically indistinct that many liberals cast protest votes for Ralph Nader. (Little did we know!) Turnout was 51.3 percent. It went up to 55.3 percent in 2004, high-water mark of the red-blue divide.

Moderate nominees, er, moderate the enthusiasm of the liberals and conservatives who make up the two major parties' bases. When your party's standardbearer doesn't promise much, there isn't a lot to win. Nor is there much to lose if the enemy party's nominee seems relatively reasonable. The Democratic and Republican parties, already so similar on issues like trade, immigration and abortion, become more broadly indistinguishable. Elections offer fewer, less relevant options. Citizens tune out. Over time, some will start to yearn for another, less free but more effective form of government.

Open primaries, wrote Gerston, are "akin to casual sports fans having a voice in the selection of college playoff schedules or newly arrived residents of a town affecting the decision of a long-disputed, festering public policy issue." If we want to get rid of the two-party system, great. Until then, let Democrats pick the Democratic nominee and Republicans choose the Republican nominee. If independents want to play, too, let them fill out a form.

Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.


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