Primary dilemmas

You would think that a guy like me, at the ripe old age of 57, would have thought long and hard about the electoral process in the United States of America, especially around primary elections. But the truth is, this is the first cycle during which I've had to come to grips with what primaries really mean and how they fit into the overall political calculus. In doing so, I've had to confront my own biases and motivations, the role of personal relationships, my sense of what's "fair," and the tricky question of electability.

At the top of my philosophical pyramid, one thing is clear: Given the choice between two parties, a Democrat is alway better than a Republican. Because of the way leadership and committee assignments are made in the legislature and in Congress, my prime directive is to strive for strong Democratic majorities.

So what does that mean in primaries? That's trickier. In NC-8, for example, I'm supporting Larry Kissell. Is he the kind of strong progressive I really want in Congress? That's debatable. But he's the guy who took on Hayes at a time when no one else would step up. And he's a good and decent man who has shown he has a great chance of actually being elected. In Larry's case, the factors influencing my support are a combination of practicality (electability) and personal connection (I really like the guy).

For governor, the same two considerations apply, plus a policy issue. Though either Moore or Perdue would a fine governor, I lean toward Perdue because she's been a long-standing supporter of abortion rights. That issue is at the top of my personal list (along with building a green economy). In my conversations with Perdue, I've become convinced that she's the strongest on those two issues.

That said, I have a soft spot (in my head?) for Mike Munger, who is running for governor as a libertarian. I really appreciate sheer intellectual prowess, and Munger is by far the sharpest knife in any party's drawer. Does that mean I'll vote for Munger in the general? Heck no. Because a vote for Munger would increase the chances that Orr, Smith or Graham could win the governor's mansion. In which case North Carolina would be totally screwed. (Actually, Orr wouldn't be so bad were it not for his relationship with Art Pope, which is a deal-killer for me.)

For lieutenant governor, I'm staying out of the fray. I have my personal favorites (Dellinger and Besse), but I really want to wait and see how the campaigns unfold before I throw my support behind anyone.

For treasurer I have two personal friends in the race, both of whom would be excellent. I'm contributing to one of them, but I'm not going public in that race either.

For US Senate, I would have been cautiously supportive of Hagan had she been the first candidate in the race. She's been an okay state senator and she's a woman. But she wasn't the first candidate in. Jim Neal was ... and that's why I committed to support him. He had the will and the drive to take Dole on when no one else would step up. When I found out Neal was gay, it actually raised the stakes and turned the race into something of a civil-rights issue for me. The behavior of some Democratic Establishment leaders only served to reinforce my position.

Can Neal win in North Carolina? It's a long shot, but I guess that's what primaries and elections are for.


Where does all of this leave me? With more questions than answers ... and as a human being with lots of conflicting issues and concerns.

I wish all this were less complicated, but the only way I can think to simplify things is to stay out of primaries altogether ... to sit on the sidelines and wait to see what the whole field looks like. That's exactly the kind of triangulation and calculation that I find so unappealing in politics today, but I can understand the appeal.

Got any suggestions?


Issues vs Electability

Frankly, I am torn between these two.

Part of me is pragmatic, and sees the (sometimes slight) advantage of having a Congressman like Heath Shuler, who votes the way I want maybe 1/3 of the time. It's better than none of the time, right?

But another part of me feels like that is a compromise, and will end up watering down progressive ideals, until they're no longer progressive anymore.

I don't know...

I thought I was just a snotnosed kid...

...but I struggle with this every day. After Heath got into office, I felt somewhat let down as he voted. As far as Larry goes, he has 100% of my support, and I can only hope that heading off to DC and being around his new peers will help open his eyes to a lot of issues. The way I've learned to deal with it is by realizing that yes, it is somewhat of a self compromise, but most importantly it's progress. You get your guy in there, and you hope he does everything in his abilities to represent you and your neighbors. It IS better than someone that never votes your way, obviously, but with every person I decide to personally support, it pains me to know that an important vote or bill could come down to their one weak spot, and leave me hopeless. But alas, such is life, or so I'm learning. Thanks for bringing up this issue, A, as I always feel like I drive myself crazy with these notions.

Guess that makes me a snotnosed old man

I envy you, though. You're thinking through things at a level of complexity I never even knew about when I was working for McGovern way back when. You seem to have your head on straight about it - a bit of idealism, tempered by serious pragmatism and a desire to make progress.

I think that's why I like the term "progressive" so much.

One of my friends says the battle for progressives should wait until we have much stronger majorities in the legislature and in Congress. I guess I'm a bit cynical about that.

Thanks for the comments.

To your friend...

Patience, Grasshopper.

I'm not so sure

about this either, james:

One of my friends says the battle for progressives should wait until we have much stronger majorities in the legislature and in Congress. I guess I'm a bit cynical about that.

One of the main complaints I (and many others) have with our political process is how things don't seem to change much, regardless of how elections turn out. I honestly believe there are many more progressive-minded people out there (even in NC) than polls reflect, partially because people tend to label themselves as "moderate", just because they don't self-identify with stereotypical extremes. When taken issue by issue, many progressive ideas themselves are fairly popular.

So, for the sake of argument, if we accept the idea that elected officials (and their subsequent votes) are driven by the desires of their district, and we also accept that a healthy chunk of people are receptive to progressive ideas if they're presented properly, then it becomes more an issue of education/communication as opposed to who is actually elected.

I don't mean that last part as a slight to those who are running for office, and I'm not imlying that "any warm body will do", I'm saying real change has to come from the bottom up. We progressive thinkers have to sell our beliefs to the general public and, in many cases, we have to outsell deep-pocketed corporate interests who are really good at misinformation. That ain't easy, but we've got a hell of a product to sell—the truth.

Of course, change can be affected from the top down, but will it last? Those people on the street out there, they're the ones who have to really want change for it to make a difference. Polls these days look pretty good in that respect, but it's still not enough. There are still way too many Americans who don't grasp the consequences of static and ill-conceived policies.

We have a lot of work to do, but it's worth it. And it does make a difference, although that's not always evident.

Public Opinion has to change to make progress

I had the fortune of listening to Rep. Deborah Ross speak several time in about a week's time. She makes a very strong point about progressive ideas needing the support of the people and public opinion before we can successfully bring them forward into new law and policies. Until the majority of voters support these changes, the most that can happen is holding actions - trying not to let things get worse.

I think we have cause to fault our elected officials if public support is strong for a policy and they do not act decisively. I also think they should be champions of some difficult causes that are right, in order to blaze a trail for public opinion to follow. Not many politicians have the courage to champion an unpopular cause or policy, at least not until it becomes popular.

Ed Ridpath

Ed Ridpath


While everything you say makes sense, I have such a hard time telling myself that progress should be put on hold in any way. The only time that thought crosses my mind is when I see pundits or networks latching on to a progressive idea that's somewhat in its infancy, and either over evaluate or falsely propagate the very notion of it. They do their jobs or making progressive thoughts seemingly redundant, and everything gets this form of a "stigma" surrounding it. Other than that, I'm a firm believer in progress in the very sense of the word, even if it amounts to baby steps.

Progress by incremental steps

My favorite question of any progressive issue: what is the next step that moves the ball down the field? For example SCHIP is a way to move towards universal health care. Public financing of state judicial, followed by a few Council of State races moves us down the road to voter owned elections. Pushing collective bargaining for State Employees is a good step for workers' rights. You get the idea.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Ed Ridpath

Ed Ridpath

I think America's hungry.

However, as a young voter, I have yet to see a time in which our government is able to pursue such topics solely on the grounds of improving our nation or bettering life for American citizens. It seems as if all of the issues at hand are either the remnants of failed policy and diplomacy of our current failed President, or hot button issues that seem to be just thrown out for the media to latch on to by the administration as well. All I know is Bush backed elections, where naivety and neglect bring more out to the polls than promise.

This is why I think progress shouldn't be limited or halted at any time. While we may not be as capable as the party of fear, it almost seems as if we need our own extreme progressive propositions to help bring the open minded out to the polls. Perhaps it's the fact that I sometimes find myself in what's made out to be such a stereotypical and cliche demographic, that I want to shout my beliefs and causes at the top of my lungs. In some cases, the "incremental steps" could be seen as a form of bargaining or cheapening of the process itself.

Regardless, it's late and I'm sure I'm rambling, but I'm very honored to discuss such topics with you Mr. Ridpath, and I'm glad we have this community to discuss and air out our grievances. Thank you all.

Selling the truth

we have to outsell deep-pocketed corporate interests who are really good at misinformation.

Precisely. We can fashion well made arguments out of words and pictures. That we can do. What remains to be seen is how effectively we can disseminate truth campaigns through cheap media channels like the internet.

We have to get a lot better

at interacting with and influencing the mainstream media, because this:

cheap media channels like the internet.

simply does not reach enough people to make a difference.

As a (possibly inappropriate) example, I spent a great deal of time promoting a novel I had published, using numerous Internet outlets in what I thought was a very dynamic and creative approach. I can safely say that all of that "exposure" I gained resulted in the sales of a few dozen books.

We can blog our hearts out, but until that message gets serious ink or air time, we're talking to a relatively small group of people. Now, if that group of people wields more influence than the average, as I believe many BlueNC readers do, there's an opportunity provided that most Internet sites cannot claim. How we translate that advantage into maximizing exposure is the key.

I'm not conflicted. I've finally reached the conclusion that

I'm only going to vote for people I think are honest, qualified, and likely to reflect and represent my interests. I can then sleep at night knowing I was true to myself. The rest of the story can sort itself it will anyway, regardless.

Stan Bozarth

I am an idealist.

I tend to vote for the candidate I agree with on the most issues, not the one who I think has the best chance of getting elected. Perhaps that's wrong from a party strategy standpoint, but I value my vote, and I vote my values.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi


Primaries are frustrating. Some of the "progressive reforms" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries might make sense, but I think that primaries are not among the "make sense" group.

From a technical perspective, a primary can be little more than a poorly designed lottery, with little or no correspondence between the will of the people and the actual outcome.

Two large problems with primaries:

1. Voters have to choose strategically. You may not vote for your favorite candidate, because you are worried about electability. But if you worry too much about that, both parties nominate centrists and both parties frustrate their activists, the people who matter for getting out the vote and for making the party vibrant and alive. If primary voters choose their most preferred candidate, though, you end up with someone TOO FAR from the center, and the result is that the other party holds office, with far worse results than if a less partisan WINNER had emerged from your own party. This is a very hard coordination problem. The alternative is the "smoke-filled room," on which more anon.

2. The support you get may have nothing to do with your positions or skills, and everything to do with how many other candidates happen to locate near you. If you have two strong candidates, both quite far left, and one weak, centrist, the two on the left split the activist vote, and the weak centrist wins. Or, if you have three strong centrists, and one weak and rather extreme person far out on the spectrum, the one may beat the three, even though any of the three would have beaten the one head to head.

The problem is worse in Presidential primaries, or any primary with lots of voters. An article I published some years ago, with Alexandra Cooper, illustrates the problem:

The (un)predictability of primaries with many candidates: Simulation evidence, Public Choice 103, 3-4 (June 2000) 337-355. (A. Cooper and M. Munger)

Abstract: It is common to describe the dynamic processes that generate outcomes in U.S. primaries as "unstable'' or "unpredictable''. In fact, the way we choose candidates may amount to a lottery. This paper uses a simulation approach, assuming 10,000 voters who vote according to a naive, deterministic proximity rule, but who choose party affiliation probabilistically. The voters of each party then must choose between two sets of ten randomly chosen candidates, in "closed'' primaries. Finally, the winners of the two nominations compete in the general election, in which independent voters also participate. The key result of the simulations reported here is the complete unpredictability of the outcomes of a sequence of primaries: the winner of the primary, or the party's nominee, varied as much as two standard deviations from the median partisan voter. The reason is that the median, or any other measure of the center of the distribution of voters, is of little value in predicting the outcome of multicandidate elections. These results suggest that who runs may have more to do with who wins than any other consideration.

So, finally (forgive the long and self-indulgent intro), the point: My question for Anglico is whether we would be better off with the smoke-filled room. It is a real question. Should party activists meet in caucus, and choose the candidate who best represents the ideals of the party, AND is most likely to win? Or is it better to accept the result of the "poorly designed lottery" of primaries, where turnout may be less than 15% and the result is random?

The problem is that neither system is very good. No, the REAL problem is that we USE this system to choose our candidates!

"It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois D'Ivernois, 1795.

Michael C. Munger

Mr. Munger

Just in case you're still around

The petitions I got (16 signatures) came back saying the address wasn't valid.

Can you give me the right address so I can mail them again?

Pretty please?

Jeez o'Pete! Sorry for the

Jeez o'Pete!

Sorry for the screw-up.

This address should be correct:

Libertarian Party of NC
attn: petitions
PO Box 28141
Raleigh, NC 27611

If that was the address you sent them to, let me know. But that one should work.

"It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois D'Ivernois, 1795.

Michael C. Munger

I'll send again tonight.

The address on the form I downloaded was 1821 Hillandale Road in Durham.

They're on the way!