Choice Not Consensus: A Plea From a Less Important State
By: David Bozeman
Most registered Republicans will not pick their party’s presidential nominee this election. Because of a curious tradition in our electoral process, voters in a handful of small states will get to anoint a frontrunner early this winter. Now, granted, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina don’t always decide a presidential nominee, but we know the drill. Candidates all but live in these early states. Voters, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, are wooed and courted, and some are even known by name. These ordinary, unknown Americans resemble, for a fleeting moment, unlikely tie-breakers in an urgent moment of national deadlock.
In 2008, with no early GOP frontrunner, some of the talking heads were delighting in the prospect of a floor fight at the Republican National Convention to select a nominee (Romney, Rudy Guiliani and Mike Huckabee led, with John McCain rounding out the field). Of course, John McCain secured the nomination surprisingly early (March), thus by the time North Carolina’s primary rolled around, no GOP contender had come to town or called my home or even run an ad. While that scenario is not a guaranteed repeat for 2012, it’s not unlikely, either. Just ask voters in Indiana and West Virginia (also with primaries in early May).
Interestingly, the Gingrich campaign recently announced plans to launch a committee in North Carolina, with former state GOP chairman Tom Fetzer heading the effort. Party officials are enthused that North Carolina could matter after all. Yes, after all. Indeed, my vote might very well count. But therein lies the point of the matter — why should states have to fight for relevance in the nominating process? Why should the voters in New Hampshire and Iowa have a greater say in deciding a presidential nominee over the party faithful in Arkansas (primary in late May), Utah (late June), California (early June), New York (late April) or New Mexico (early June)? I ask rhetorically, of course, as I know that the states, according to the Constitution, set their own primary dates).
But frontrunner status, of course, confers momentum that those of us in the less important states typically cannot offer. That momentum feeds on itself, and sometimes not even the early voters can resist the sentiment, advanced by a 24-hour news cycle, that certain candidates, however well qualified, are not worth consideration.
Presidential campaigns now seem to start well over a year before the votes are cast. Political strategists are surely not fully rested up from the endless campaign of 2008. And public opinion polls, which used to be taken occasionally to gauge national sentiment, are now reported with mind-numbing constancy and tend to SHAPE public opinion — ‘My guy’s still in the single digits, should I bother voting for him next year?’ Furthermore, a huge favorite, Herman Cain, was drummed out of the race before a single vote was even cast.
Granted, early primaries don’t always pick the winner and can sometimes smooth the way for a promising upstart. But far too often, the outcomes hinge on the voices of a select few offering us a limited menu from which to choose. As a North Carolinian, I have seen no commercials thus far from any of the candidates. No one has called or made an appearance in my state. Still, I have questions for Mitt Romney, I have a question for the current frontrunner, Newt Gingrich: In 1995′s To Renew America, you lauded FDR as “probably the greatest President of the 20th Century.” Do you stand by that assessment? Breaking bad with the media and holding court at debates fires up the rank and file and makes for great headlines. But how about more in the way of character, worldview and nuance? How about this voter venting his frustration at knowing that his bottom-tier candidate, whom he thinks is debating and performing well, cannot be saved by his vote?
Fortunately, as Americans, we have a voice beyond the ballot box, leaving us free to contribute and speak out. If the process will not invite the rest of us to the forum, then maybe it’s time for the rest of us to inaugurate our own political tradition, and a more inclusive one at that.