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The Weekly Jelly: The primary problem: why partisan politics focuses voter attention on parties, not presidents

Published: February 10, 2012
Section: Opinions


As I watched results pour in from the Missouri and Colorado primaries and the Minnesota Caucuses, I must say I was a little bit stunned at Rick Santorum’s victories. In election season it is always interesting to see how the country feels about various politicians, why they vote the way they do, and who in fact will wind up rising to the challenge of attempting to defeat President Obama. However, the elections on Tuesday led me to realize a serious problem in the way we think about electoral politics.

While my fiscal ideas may shift a little bit more towards laissez faire than most Democrats would be comfortable with, I am clearly a Liberal. I have always identified with the Democratic Party and I do not see that changing anytime soon. As is quite common, a political junky surrounds himself with many people of the same opinion. I hang out with people who are liberal to the point that I’d venture to guess they’d make Marx cry out “down with big government! Cut spending! Adam Smith rocks my socks!” What I continually find is that when they see things like Rick Santorum making huge gains in primaries and caucuses, they are happy.

Rick Santorum is a man who advocates many very conservative policies. He is the man who wants to open up the dialogue on making contraception illegal. He is the one who, rather than Ron Paul who makes the cop-out states’ rights argument, actually wants to impose law at the federal level defining marriage as between a man and a woman. He is what the typical northeastern collegiate liberal despises and ridicules. However, what my friends also realize is that the chances of Santorum winning against Obama are very slim.

I would agree with what many have already said. Santorum is far too conservative to be able to capture independent voters, and likely many who are unsure about Obama will choose what they see as the lesser of two evils. This leads to feelings of utter euphoria on a night such as tonight, because it signals disunity in the Republican Party. Some would hope that with Santorum showing strength, Romney will need to drift further right in his rhetoric to capture Santorum’s base.

This could be problematic against Obama when trying to appear moderate. Some would even hope that Santorum could pull off a stunning victory in the primary and caucus series, and thus essentially hand the President the election.
As I approached voter registration table this week, students were advocating for Elizabeth Warren, who is running against Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts. While there I explained that the way I’m registered right now I will be allowed to vote in the Republican primary in Massachusetts. To this, one friend nearby replied something along the lines of “oh, that’s so mean. Why would you do that? You know you’d hate it if Republicans came to our primary.” He had assumed that I would go to vote for a bad candidate simply for the purpose of ruining the Republican chance at winning the White House. Nothing could be further from the truth and I find it rather troublesome to our political system that people would have that impulse.

I believe that we should vote in any given scenario for the person who we would be most okay with being our leader. While I will vote for Obama, on the chance that a Republican will wind up winning, I want him to be the most capable leader in the field. It just seems logical that most liberals would prefer Romney to Santorum. No matter how much they try to say “I hate all of them,” deep down, they know that if Obama absolutely could not pull off a win then they would prefer Romney.

What this indicates is a trend of over-politicizing the system to an inappropriate level. The political drama is just an offshoot of a much bigger issue. As zealous as we get over the goal of getting “our” guy into office, we should be concerned at the most basic level with maximizing the utility for the country in our viewpoint. We should want what we see as best for the country regardless of whether or not we are perfectly happy with it.

If someone sees getting the President re-elected as their principal goal then terrific. That is a great goal to pursue. However, they should not be so extreme as to eliminate even the possibility of an Obama loss. Once they accept that despite their greatest efforts he might lose, the way seems clear: rank the candidates based on who they are most okay with. What a person should not do is throw their vote away on someone who they actually despise. One should not cheer when a man they see as incapable wins a victory. That is why I will be voting for Mitt Romney in the Massachusetts Primary. That is, if the contest is still going on I will do so. Only time will tell.