Years ago, I read or heard something that stuck in the back of my mind. I don’t recall where or when I heard it, but its elegant wisdom was so great that I absorbed it entirely — where it actually bypassed my conscious mind until recently.
“Primaries are for the heart, general elections are for the head.”
In our political system, the primaries — the first rounds of elections — are where we can indulge our romantic, emotional side. We can pick and choose between a slate of candidates, seeing who agrees with us on the most issues, who agrees with us on the issues we see as most important, who we like the best, or — even in some cases — who will be the easiest to defeat by our truly preferred candidate. You can vote for whoever you want for whatever reason you want.
In my case, it’s even better. New Hampshire has open primaries, which means that an independent voter can walk into the polls, pick a party, and cast a vote, then walk out and renounce that party on the spot. For me, I pick the primary that has the more interesting race, and vote for the candidate I feel the most compatibility. That means that I voted for Bill Bradley (D) in 2000, Joe Lieberman (D) in 2004, and Fred Thompson (R) in 2008. A few weeks ago, I took a Republican ballot because the US Senate race was the most exciting contest, but spent maybe 3 minutes as a member of the GOP before walking away from them.
That frivolity goes out the window for the general election. The fuzzy, analog politics are dead and buried, and replaced with the cold, harsh, black and white, binary math of the general.
With very few exceptions, all general elections are simple binary affairs. Either Candidate D or Candidate R will win and take office. The loser gets nothing.
And that simple fact must be foremost in the minds of voters during the campaign. No event, no report, no commercial exists in a vacuum, apart from that simple fact.
Let’s take the Delaware Senate race as an example — it’s the one everyone’s talking about right now. Christine O’Donnell is the Republican nominee, and the one who’s drawing all the attention. Chris Coons, the Democrat, is currently flying under the radar.
It’s no surprise that this is happening. O’Donnell is young, attractive, extremely colorful, and has the blessing of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. She also challenged and defeated the establishment Republican for the nomination. She’s exciting. On the other hand, Coons is a career pol who’s kind of dull.
Here, the binary nature of the Coons/O’Donnell race is being overlooked. Pretty much every attack on O’Donnell is a plus for Coons. And all the talk about how inexperienced, unqualified, unfit, or kooky O’Donnell might be is also a tacit uptick for Coons.
There’s a highly underrated political novel from almost 40 years ago called “Dark Horse” by Fletcher Knebel. It’s the story of how the unexpected death of the Democratic presidential nominee three weeks before the election leads to a compromise candidate replacing him — a New Jersey turnpike commissioner named Eddie Quinn. Eddie knows he has no chance, so he runs a totally gonzo campaign. But his attitude and bluntness strikes a chord with the voters, and he starts surging in the polls. That scares the crap out of him — all of a sudden, it occurs to him that he just might be the next president of the United States.
Then Eddie has a chat with his Republican opponent after a classified CIA briefing. The Republican sets aside politics for principle, and gives Eddie some very profound advice:
“Don’t worry about if you’re the best qualified man for the job. Only ask yourself if you’re the best qualified man running for the job.“
That’s what it boils down to: no matter how kooky or naive or erratic O’Donnell might be, does that make her a worse potential Senator than Coons? That is the only question that matters.
That’s what must be taken into account during the run-up to the general election. Every single attack on a candidate is, in effect, a boost for their opponent. And each must be weighed against the simple question: does this make this candidate less preferable than the other one?
Because, in the end, one of those two candidates must win. One of those two will take office. And rejecting one candidate is embracing the other.
It’s that simple. It’s always that simple.