Groucho Marx and the primary season of our discontent

Here are some thoughts for the season, as we all try to make sense of the American way of choosing finalists in our quadrennial elections sweepstakes. And of course, 50 states and 8 territories have their own rules.

1) The other day I saw a quote from Groucho Marx’s role in “A Night at the Opera”: “You big bully, why are you hitting that little bully?”

Groucho_MarxOn the whole, Americans don’t like bullies. We tend to prefer interacting with people who are modest and respectful. But then there’s political life. The Groucho quote seems a good test in the current rough-and-tumble Republican primary struggle. Will the biggest bully win? A small-to-moderate one? Someone too nice to be a bully? Did one big bully, C., as his last act in the play yard, take down a littler one named M. in order to give himself a better chance at being someone else’s vice-presidential pick?

The next few weeks may give answers, but in any case let’s keep our eyes on the bully/insult/aggressiveness theme. And I think Groucho would find a lot more laughs in our “system.”

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Ralph F. Stitt, Rivoli Theatre

2) “Before Donald Trump, There Was Jan Brewer” by Josh Marro, New York Times, 2/10/16, quotes the former Republican Arizona governor as saying

“Voters want somebody that can solve the problems and can do it effectively and do it right…. They just don’t want somebody that says ‘no, no, no.’ ”

Could that be good advice for the many present and now former candidates who speak against immigrants, Social Security, Medicare, Latinos, Muslims, the economically deprived, women’s rights, gun violence prevention, climate change mitigation, diplomacy, foreign countries, the President of the United States, the Pope, and a lot more?

3) Open primaries—in which voters who are not registered in a party can vote in that state’s primary—have never made sense to me.

Pennsylvania has closed primaries: Democrats choose their candidates and Republicans choose theirs. Independents, who do’t wish to participate in a party, wait till November for their turn.

It’s true, PA voters can switch parties up to 30 days before an election if they really want to help or oppose a candidate of a party they don’t really belong to, but although that does happen (it is said Ed Rendell won the Dem primary for Governor thanks to Republican switch-overs) it is probably not common. And when it does happen, the shift may be long-term, as in early 2008 many Chesco R’s who couldn’t deal with Sarah Palin became D’s to vote in the Obama v. Clinton D primary and remained D’s (that was the last notable change in relative party strength in Chesco).

Iowa’s caucuses are also closed, but the New Hampshire primary is “mixed,” meaning that Independents can vote in either the D or R primary but D’s and R’s cannot vote in the other party’s primary. I got a laugh from the Wikipedia article: the 4th-place finisher in the NH primary was Vermin Supreme, whose platform includes requiring Americans to brush their teeth. Is that big government or what?

In further proof of American political ingenuity, South Carolina “does not have registration by party. Voters may vote in either party’s primary, but not both” ( I’m trying to get my mind around that: how would those of us who regularly canvass “our” D or R voters operate if there are no registered D’s and R’s? How would we see if our own party registration is gaining or shrinking? It would be a whole different dialogue. And who receives all those robocalls imploring us to vote for the candidates of our own party? Hmm, perhaps there is something to be said for the SC model.

Thus, in the SC primary, voters who regard themselves as Independents could choose the D or R winner and voters who think of themselves as D’s or R’s could choose the other party’s winner, and no one will ever know how many of each did the voting.

And here’s another twist: the SC primaries are on 2 different dates: Republican on February 20, Democratic on February 27 (both Saturdays, a good idea for people with long workdays). So if I am not feeling well on the day of the first primary or there is a big storm, I just go vote in the second. R, D, what ever, at least I can put on a “I Voted Today” sticker. It’s hard to imagine in our very party-oriented PA! And party activists have to go out and try to influence primary voters at the polls twice. Twice as much work for them… and twice as expensive for the county to pay the poll workers!

In non-closed primary states like NH and SC, I suggest that we should speak not of the D and R primary, but of “state-level general election rehearsals.”

4) Should states’ influence on a party’s presidential choice vary by more than population?

We know that PA is usually very competitive in statewide (ungerrymandered) races. But in some states we can say a R or D has virtually zero chance of winning in November; should R’s or D’s in those states influence their own party’s choice of a candidate who will have to suit voters elsewhere?

Actually, the parties have thought of that. It is so complicated that you’ll have to read a separate post soon to find the details. But here’s an exemplary bottom line: Wyoming (dominated by R’s) has 11 times the per-capita influence of Republicans in California (where R’s seldom win anything) on the choice of their party’s presidential candidate. I can understand that: why should presumably more moderate CA voters hold the R party back from choosing a right-winger? But what I can’t understand is why Wyoming has twice California’s per capita influence on the D nomination. It seems to me a ratio around 0.5 would be more appropriate

5) PA can learn something from South Carolina in accommodating voters with physical difficulties who do not wish to vote absentee (from the download “Access for All Voters in South Carolina“):

“Voters who are unable to access the polling place or stand in line to vote due to a disability or being age 65 or older may vote in their vehicle. Curbside voting does not require a disability parking placard. Poll managers monitor the curbside voting area at a minimum of 15 minute intervals.”

More soon on the primary season, the media’s favorite source of excitement.

About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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