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Invisible, that's what they are

Jon Bernstein links to a very interesting interview over at CJR called How to Understand the ‘Invisible Primary’, in which Hans Noel explains his view of the primary campaign. If you have been reading Mr. Bernstein’s stuff, none of this will really come as a surprise to you, but it’s worth reading on its own. I do have a couple of things to add, from the point of view of a partisan blogger who is not really active in any of the Party organizations.

For one thing, while I understand that Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Noel and other political scientists are attempting to describe the universe as it exists, I think they are doing themselves a rhetorical disservice by leaving aside the ways in which we primary voters experience the campaigns—and more important, the ways in which we experience these sorts of articles about the campaigns. We know that by the time we vote the practical choices have been narrowed down to one or two people. We are aware, on some level, that our choice is either to support the presumptive nominee or to reject that person. If we aren’t in Iowa or New Hampshire, we have all had our preferred candidate drop out before our state votes. Probably everybody in Iowa and New Hampshire has had that happen as well. At the very least, we’ve had the experience of pulling a useless protest lever, knowing that the guy we don’t like will win anyway.

I am, by the way, speaking as an aged veteran of six primary campaigns, including one uncontested incumbency—seven and two, if you want to count this one already. I would be willing to say eight and count the 1984 run, where I had opinions but not a vote; I may even have had opinions in 1980, but my recollection of support for Ted Kennedy may well be later invention. I don’t remember supporting a particular candidate in 1976—I may well have held a sign for Mo Udall, but at parental behest, not out of conviction. Still, anyone growing up in a family that pays attention to politics (and that must be eighty percent or more of eventual primary voters) probably has dim recollection of a candidate whose brief hopes with the nomination sparked a fondness disproportionate to the candidates actual chances. Anyway, my point is that I believe most, probably a very large majority of primary voters in any cycle have, like me, been through it before enough times to know that the candidate we cotton to right away will fall by the wayside before Super Tuesday.

So we know. But when we are told Y’all don’t matter that much it gets our hackles up. At least mine—does it yours, Gentle Readers? There’s a hint that we are deluding ourselves; we aren’t, we really aren’t. We are incredibly frustrated by the whole process and we don’t like being told these hard truths as if our frustration is wasted. In fact, our frustration is (and I think Mr. Bernstein and his associates would agree) a vital and important part of party-building and of the whole process, in terms of who gets the nomination as well as who leads the party and who gets to govern and how. Our frustration is part of becoming the democratic nation we want to be. The system doesn’t work without it. And I think that we would find it a lot easier to read and think about these kinds of articles if that were acknowledged as part of the rhetoric.

I had a couple of other points to make, too. I do think that we in Left Blogovia had started to pay attention in the last cycle to who was working with and for the candidates (as well as big money folk such as Charles and David Koch); this does need to be expanded. I think David S. Bernstein (brother of the aforementioned Mr. Bernstein) (and I should probably repeat, for any Gentle Readers newish to this Tohu Bohu that I have known the Bernstein Boys since they were so high, love them dearly, and so on and so forth) does an excellent job of this in New Hampshire—he identifies several people who he thinks are key, and reports when they seem to be jumping one way or another. This is the sort of thing that local reporters can do very well (if they have local papers that pay them) and then other news organizations can use that reporting to get the information out. But what I think would be interesting is if the dozen or so most influential people in Iowa and the dozen or so in New Hampshire get named and spotlighted, will it make their eventual influence greater or less? How will the observation influence the observed? Because the thing about the invisible primary is its invisibility, which makes it possible for such-and-such a labor leader or fund-raiser or legislative committee chair to deliberate and collude and conspire and otherwise act outside the gaze of the public. If reporters start to report on the most influential people in the invisible primary, and those people have assistants who will leak rumors (as they do and will), and the big news of the day is not what slight variation on the stump speech some candidate made in a diner in Mason City but the endorsement of some State Senator who last cycle brought in half-a-dozen other endorsements with her and who is married to the guy who runs the company that makes the commercials—Senator Publiceye may not be able to bring in the other endorsements and the free and cheap media time in those conditions. Or they might, but I don’t think it’s obvious.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,