Primary Concern

It seems like this should have happened by now, but this Thursday (Jan 3) is the first actual vote in the presidential primary race. For months now (years, in the case of some), the candidates have been darting around America desperately seeking support and momentum for their campaigns. Of course, when I say “America,” I really mean Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and a handful of other states that have somehow secured the earliest caucuses and primaries. If you’re lucky enough (or unlucky enough, depending on your view) to be a resident in one of these states, congratulations: you have the power to speak for the rest of the country in choosing the nominees for Commander-in-Chief.

The Iowa Caucus has been the first major electoral step in the president-nominating process since 1972, transforming the state from humble cornfield country to the dominant locus of electioneering every four years. Whoever wins the Iowa Caucus (in which only a few hundred thousand people participate) automatically becomes the favorite to win the nomination, because, well, I’m not sure why…

Actually I do know why. The race for the president is increasingly a game of “predicting and projecting” winners and losers. And as soon as the media (and by extension the voting public) gets wind of who is or might be a “winner,” that candidate becomes the person to beat. For lack of anything else to influence one’s decision, voting for a perceived “winner” is increasingly the method of most voters.

So what’s so wrong with this “voting for a winner” method? Well, if you have a mind for strategy and pragmatism, then nothing. But if everyone is voting for a candidate because they think he/she has the best chance of winning and not necessarily because they view them as the superior candidate, then something has gone a bit haywire with the democratic process. We fool ourselves by thinking that a candidate’s ability to win an election has little to do with our personal attraction to them as an appealing candidate. It has everything to do with it.

If everyone voted with their gut for the candidate they really wanted to win (even if he or she were last in the straw polls or had little media coverage), then that candidate would have a chance to win the election. It’s like the “Spiral of Silence” theory of communication: When there is some perceived dominant opinion being offered (in this case, the media’s crowning of “top tier candidates”), those inclined against this view will typically keep their opposition silent. Thus, even if the majority of people are in the opposition camp, chances are their silence will spiral out of control, unquestioned (groupthink style).

Here’s the implication for this election and the primary system in general: Since the media is covering this thing like flies on roadkill, it is clear that who they focus on in their coverage (and subtly cast as the “frontrunner”) will be the perceived “winner” by the masses who are planning to vote. Thus, even if said voters secretly wish for candidate “underdog” to win, they will most likely view a vote for him/her as a waste. And no one wants to waste a vote. Instead, they will likely vote for candidate “frontrunner,” placing themselves within the consensus and boosting momentum for the person most likely to make a strong showing in the national race. Do you see how this goes counter to the whole purpose of democracy?

The primary system is concerning to me, not because I don’t think states like Iowa or New Hampshire are unthinking anomalies that don’t represent the country as a whole, but because they have so much power to decide the winners and losers. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush won the Iowa Caucus and South Carolina primary handily, forcing all the other Republican candidates out the race by February (with the exception of John McCain and Alan Keyes). In 2004 on the Democratic side, Howard Dean had all the momentum going into the Iowa Caucus, but placed a surprising third (behind Kerry and Edwards), which then destroyed his chances in New Hampshire (he lost to Kerry there too), forcing him to withdraw from the race even before Super Tuesday. To summarize the impact of these early primaries: If you don’t win them, you’re not going to be president.

This harsh truth is a reality because unfortunately the American populace has been conditioned by the media to reduce everything down to winners and losers (one facet of the overarching black/white binary so pervasive in the press). If a candidate appears to be a “winner,” more people will begin to vote for him or her. Not so if there is a “loser” or “dark horse” perception. But why is this so? Why are we so simple-minded in this manipulative, herd-mentality electoral process?

Sadly I think this is all a result of our general ignorance of the issues and the actual positions candidates represent. Even in the digital era in which finding out what a candidate has to say is no harder than a Google search, most Americans have no idea what distinguishes one candidate from another. We might be able to distinguish Mike Huckabee from Mitt Romney in a lineup (though I shudder to think how many Americans couldn’t even do this), but as far as how their platforms on immigration or health care differ, the majority of us would be hard pressed to come up with anything. It’s not that we don’t care or don’t pay attention to the media, it is that we do pay attention to the media. And the media has little concern for the issues. For the media it’s not about the ingredients, it’s about the overall taste. Unfortunately for our country and its longterm democratic health, a sweet and palatable taste is not what we need in a president. We need to check the label, read the ingredients, and assess the nutritional value before we pick our next poison.