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Publication: Conservative Review
Primary Confusions

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                   January 18, 2008

Primary Confusions
By William F. Buckley

Sebastian Mallaby, a journalist for The Washington Post, 
writes to formulate, or rather reformulate, the complaint 
we are entitled to make on the matter of our primary 
practices. Mallaby reminds us that if three people are 
running for office, we can't know which of the three is 
the true favorite of the voters. You can't merely subtract 
the vote for the man who came in third and apportion it to 
scale as between No. 1 and No. 2, because if No. 3 had not 
been in the race, more of his voters might have gone for 
No. 2 than for No. 1. And the confusion deepens if there 
are more than three candidates. In Iowa, the Democrats had 
eight, the Republicans seven. 

Most European countries don't have this problem because 
there is no line on the ballot for "prime minister." It is 
left to the majority political party to decide who shall 
be its leader, and except in his own district he does not 
face local popularity contests. The operating thesis is 
that unless the party puts forward a leader who is 
attractive to the electorate as a whole, the candidate 
will wear down the party's popularity, and a contending 
party will step in. 


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We have the additional problem of the advantage given to 
candidates who are effective in the early contests. To show 
up well in Iowa means much more than to win Iowa delegates. 
It propels the victor to a strategic eminence that can 
hugely affect subsequent votes. There are candidates who 
kill themselves to raise $5 million or $10 million to 
advertise their attractions to the next set of primary 
voters a week hence. That itself is a distracting inter-
ference in the attempt to divine the popular will. 

Efforts have been made to limit the sums that can be spent 
in election contests. These efforts have failed, and 
probably should fail, inasmuch as the regulation of money 
spent on an election is not automatically a means of 
reducing extraneous factors in political appeal. The 
election process is a market exercise. The voter is given 
the choice of Clinton, Obama or Edwards, and it is left 
exclusively to him what weight he wishes to attach to 
Clinton's experience, Obama's exotic racial background or 
Edwards' good looks. That can't be changed, the effect of 
individual tastes, even if they are eccentric. 

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But the critics are on firm ground if they ask simply, as 
Mallaby does, that a primary winner should not be judged 
pre-eminent if he (read he/she) was competing in a race 
in which there were more than two candidates. Which raises 
concrete questions about the current scene. 

Would Clinton have prevailed in New Hampshire if Obama had 
been her only opponent? Do not go off self-satisfied with 
the assumption that the problem would be solved by contriv-
ing a means of eliminating the factor of Edwards et al. 
That could be done by reforms mandating a runoff between 
the two top vote-getters, as they do in France. But that 
would leave unanswered the question: Are the voters in a 
local primary being deprived of representation consistent 
with their potential strength in a national contest? 

One approach would grant points to primary candidates, to 
be added up at the end of the line. So that such as Mr. 
Edwards don't just get eliminated; they store up points 
which they can invoke at the final clearinghouse of the 
national convention. 


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Well, most of these projected reforms, whatever their 
theoretical appeal, simply aren't going to happen unless a 
demonstrable distortion should wrench from favor existing 
procedures. But of course our system has means of coping 
with, if not eliminating, crippling paradoxes. It was not 
so long ago, in American history, that the next candidate 
of the party in power was simply the person ordained by 
the incumbent. It was in part a recognition of the awful 
likelihood that Henry Wallace would be the Democratic 
candidate succeeding FDR that brought on the switch to 
Harry Truman as vice president in 1944. 

We do not face such contingencies in 2008. What we do face 
is several more months of the kind of confusion that can 
frustrate the modern American voter. 

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