Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Electability is important

Although the New Hampshire primary had different results in the bottom line, some of the underlying trends were the same. Young voters increased their share of the vote, and — which is more significant — Obama won the independent vote. It just happened that in this case, Clinton’s win among Democrats was enough to put her on top.

According to CNN, 43% of independents voted for Obama, compared to 31% for Clinton. But a little over half of those who voted in the Democratic primary identified as Democrats, and Clinton won more of those votes than Obama did.1 Simply put, New Hampshire ended up being Democratic enough that Obama’s lead among independents wasn’t enough to win him the primary. But although two states out of 50 is hardly the last word, the results so far indicate that Obama is the better candidate.

Independence from independents is wrong

Voters who weigh the good of choosing a strong candidate against the evil of sacrificing some of their ideals are assuming an evil that simply doesn’t exist. Picking a candidate without regard to others’ opinions is the right thing to do in a parliamentary system with proportional representation, but in an winner-take-all government like America’s, it is exactly the wrong approach.

It all comes down to where compromise factors into the process. In systems with proportional representation, it happens within the government. Each voter steadfastly selects the candidate or party that most closely fits his own ideals, and the elected officials work out compromises as they establish ruling coalitions. Constituents determine how much weight each opinion should have by determining how many of its supporters are elected.

America’s presidency, for the most part, doesn’t work that way. Only one party can be elected (and only one candidate at that, really, since most people don’t weigh the vice president or potential cabinet members much in their decisions) so any compromise has to happen during the primaries. A party does the nation a disservice by nominating a candidate that matches the extremes of its constituency while alienating the rest of the nation. In fact, one could argue that this is what the general election is really all about; with the Democratic and Republican parties roughly equal in strength,2 the election goes to the party whose candidate represents the best compromise.

In practice, this system has a few complications. Strategic loyalties to core party bases restrict either party from moving too close to the middle, and voters can hedge a president somewhat by voting for Congressmen of the opposing party. But those who categorically dismiss a candidate’s electability as a factor, claiming that doing so tarnishes the processes by infusing it with Machiavellian pragmatism, are missing the point: a democracy works best when all of its citizens are involved, and picking a candidate who can’t effect that is a worse compromise of ideology than is picking someone who differs a bit from your own views but more closely matches the majority’s.

[1] Clinton wins back women, narrowly takes New Hampshire (accessed Jan. 9)
[2] Democrats Gain Edge in Party Identification (accessed Jan. 9) While the parties’ numbers are not actually equal — Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by a few percentage points, or at least they did in 2004 — it’s fair to assume that many people in both parties are close to center and may even switch their votes. In fact, that’s probably where those fluctuations in the parties’ share of voters comes from.

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