Monday, May 3, 2010

The Beginning of a Solution (Part I)

So, Governor Charlie Crist is running as an independent candidate in this year's Florida Senate race. Why? Because he wants to be a senator and he doesn't feel he can win the Republican nomination against former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio. He's probably right.

Primaries have always seemed ... counterproductive to me. You have a candidate like Gov. Crist (or John McCain, for that matter) who has been a moderate on many issues throughout his career, but when he decides to seek another, perhaps higher, office, he needs to convince members of his own party that he's not so "middle of the road" before they'll nominate him. He's not fooling anyone, of course, because your average primary voter has a long memory and tends to be unforgiving. Now, maybe you're like Sen. McCain and can secure the nomination anyway; or maybe you're like Crist and are forced to pursue an independent bid. Either way, whatever promises you made to the extremes of your party will haunt you in the general election when you try to appeal to more moderate voters.

What makes it worse is when you consider the presidential primary system, which forces a presidential candidate to campaign on a state-by-state or region-by-region basis. The old complaint, which I've made myself, is that Iowa and New Hampshire essentially have the power to choose who the major party nominees will be long before other states will even have the opportunity to meet most of the candidates. What's the solution? A rotating primary schedule that changes each election season? That still leaves the power to choose the nominees in the hands of a very few states; and it still doesn't solve the problem of candidates catering to primary voters and then veering to the center in the general election.

Even after the politicking and campaigning are over and you've elected a new state senator or district attorney or Congressman, the parties are still watching him. His own party is watching to ensure that he's representing their interests; the other parties are waiting for him to make a mistake, any mistake; and if he does something that either side doesn't like, then they stand ready to replace him, if they can.

I believe that most elected officials run for office because they want to help, to change things for the better; but before you can do anything, you must be elected. To be elected, you need to run through a labyrinth of legalities, get both your face and your message to the people who will be voting, convince them you're right, and hire a campaign staff that could number in the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands. All of this requires vast amounts of money, which political parties, PACs, and independently wealthy candidates can provide. How can a candidate survive without either their own fortune or the support of a major political party?

You're seeing the beginning of a solution in Florida. No, not with Gov. Crist; with his Republican opponent, Marco Rubio. How did Gov. Crist, one of the most popular governors in recent Florida history, with the endorsement of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and millions of campaign dollars, go from a double-digit lead to a double-digit deficit in the primaries against a relatively unknown son of Cuban exiles with the taint of scandal hanging over him? What turned it around, so to speak?

For one thing, he's very charismatic. He's a good decade younger than Gov. Crist, and looks it, too. He's a savvy public speaker, and even being the son of immigrants works in his favor (Republicans, after all, are pro-legal immigration). The other thing, though, is that elections are getting cheaper. Airing a campaign message doesn't mean limiting yourself to television or even newsprint anymore. In the year since Rubio declared his candidacy, the online community has practically rallied around him. On Facebook alone, he has more than four times as many "fans" as Gov. Crist. Also, small donors have begun bypassing the RNC and are donating directly to candidates they prefer, which translates to more influence for the voters and less for the establishment. The influence of the Tea Party, of course, cannot be discounted, as Rubio's commitment to conservatism is more easily demonstrated than Crist's. He's no extremist, but the bridge isn't as far for him as it was for Crist.

To a lesser extent, President Obama did the same thing when he sought the Democratic nomination and captured the lion's share of small donors against the "establishment" candidate, Hillary Clinton. I say "to a lesser extent" because he had the patronage of some very high-profile individuals, such as Oprah Winfrey and the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Marco Rubio has also received some high-profile endorsements, but they've mostly come in the last couple of months, after his meteoric rise had already begun.

The average voter is increasingly bypassing "the process", as it were. Donating directly to candidates rather than their party, ignoring the conventional wisdom about who can and cannot win, focusing on the candidates and issues themselves, and not being afraid to stand at a rally and say "this is what I want from my leaders" all help to return power to its proper place in a democracy: with the people. Whatever we may think of them and their personal politics, we all owe a great deal to candidates like Barack Obama and Marco Rubio for not "playing along".

It's a beginning; but waiting until the "right candidate" enters the race isn't going to be enough. I'll discuss what more we can do in my next post.

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