English: The state seal of Virginia. Српски / ...
English: The state seal of Virginia. Српски / Srpski: Застава америчке савезне државе Вирџиније. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is my belated commentary on a post at The Mason Conservative.

I CANNOT STAND The Primary vs. Convention Debate


Elections aren’t won or lost by the means of nomination but rather by the quality of the candidate, their campaigns, and the mood of the electorate.  Whether its 15,000 activists are a paltry 1% of the electorate in a primary, there is no guarantee one way or another.  Let me go back to 2001 and work our way forward:

  • 2001 (convention):  Earley (loss), Katzen (loss), Kilgore (win)
  • 2002 (primary):  Warner (win, unopposed)
  • 2005 (primary):  Kilgore (loss), Bolling (win), McDonnell (win)
  • 2006 (primary):  Allen (loss, unoppsoed)
  • 2008 (convention):  Gilmore (loss)
  • 2009 (convention):  McDonnell (win), Bolling (win), Cuccinelli (win)
  • 2012 (primary):  Allen (loss)
  • 2013 (convention):  Cuccinelli (loss), Jackson (loss), Obenshain (undecided)

(continued here)

Note that The Mason Conservative‘s post links to The Virginia “establishment” picks a fight with the tea party (Updated x2) at Bearing Drift: Virginia Politics On Demand.

So what’s my comment about?

In one respect, the The Mason Conservative is spot on. That is, if the argument is solely about selecting which Republican nominee can win, then it makes sense to look at the statistics and see what works. However, it is not the viewpoint of the Republican Party that matters. When we speak about politics and the political process, we need to first look at which processes best protect the liberty of our people. Which method of nomination comports best with a constitutional republic and best protects our rights?

Why do Establishment Republicans like primary elections? Primary elections favor the status quo, the people already in power. Effectively, when we have primary elections, we put The Establishment in charge of how political parties select their nominees.

Consider that Democrats and Republican politicians control the government. Establishment Democrats and Republicans like primary elections because they help to ensure their reelection and make third party movements next to impossible. Thus, primary elections help to make it difficult to throw the bums out, and that makes primary elections decidedly unhealthy for a constitutional republic.

On the other hand, when we have a convention, political activists retain full control of the process, and that is the way it should be. Why? Anybody can be a political activist. If we don’t like what the political activists in one political party are doing, we can always join a different party — so long as the government permits it.

Political parties exist to implement this part of the First Amendment: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That’s why government should have no say in how a political party selects its nominees. To protect those in power — if allowed to interfere — government can and will only corrupt the process.

Instead of holding primaries, we should allow for the possibility of at least two rounds in the general election. Why two rounds? Consider what can happen in an election with more than two candidates on the ballot. What if no candidate gets 50 percent or more of the vote? Do we actually know which candidate is the most popular? No. However, if we have a runoff between the two top vote getters, we can solve that problem.

With a runoff election, we could have avoided the mess we had in Virginia’s last gubernatorial election. Without a third party candidate in this race, the Republican candidate may have won, but without a runoff election we have no certain way of knowing. We just know that many Republicans feel cheated because they believe that the third party candidate, Robert Sarvis, pealed off votes that might have gone to Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate.

In addition, with the possibility of a runoff election, more people would risk giving third party candidates a second look. Thus, the Republicans and the Democrats might have to pay more serious attention to voters and party activists and less attention to their campaign donors.


  1. I’m not deeply immersed in Mr. Jackson’s previous statewide political success so I can’t intelligently comment on his earlier statewide political victory and contrast it with his recent defeat. When was that and for what office? Did he run in a primary? If not, why is that relevant to this discussion? Perhaps your “so what?” comment is meant to agree with me that it is not relevant.

    Which details are extraneous?

    By the way, who are these other people you always refer to when you write in the first person plural? It is an odd form to use so consistently. Are these other people you know? Do you have separate personal opinions from them?


  2. CT: Ultimately, all discussion of the democratic process is related to the question of how best to find good candidates versus bad candidates. We all prefer the former and all eschew the latter. Right?

    I was addressing the point (expressly made by Keith and implicitly made by you) that a fault of primaries is that they give incumbents an advantage. I acknowledged that this may be true because of name recognition, but posited that name recognition won’t help an incompetent office holder. Voters like you, Keith and me will vote against such people.

    Keep in mind a point that Chris alludes to: primary voters are a narrower group than general election voters and tend to be more politically enthusiastic. If the measure of success of a political convention is that a candidate like the Reverend Mr. Jackson could get nominated (a metric that I find somewhat suspect), one should not overlook the possibility that he could have one a four-way primary. Look at the Dem LG primary in 2005. The Dems nominated Leslie Byrne, a completely left-wing fringe candidate in a multi-candidate race. Leslie probably got around 30% of the vote and was completely unelectable (although by nominating Bolling, the Rs made it very close). But if the goal is to nominate extreme ideologues, it can be done with either a primary or a convention. However, if one raises one’s sights a bit to the larger issue of finding candidates who have appeal to all the voting citizens in a democratic society, open primaries might be a very effective approach for any political party.


    1. How do we define a good candidate?

      The measure of success is that the people select their own candidates without government interference. Do primaries favor incumbents and the status quo, The Establishment? I think Keith already nailed that one.

      Could E. W. Jackson have won a primary? That’s pure speculation. Interesting, but it does not really change anything. It is easy enough to come up with other examples. In any event, Jackson has run statewide twice, with differing results. Can the differences be explained? Perhaps. But so what?

      When we get so wrapped up in extraneous details, we are in danger of missing the forest for the trees.


  3. Tom … excellent write-up. I guess my main point was the way the party rips itself apart every year over this issue. If you what to pivot into what we should actually do … I actually like open primaries the best. Conventions are great and all, but it is exclusionary. People should not have to prove to the party what they believe in, its up to the party to do that to the people.

    About 2013 … I’m not convinced that EW would not have still won a primary. In a turnout that might have been around 1%, EW had a very loyal support base that clearly knew how to turn out for him. Most of all, none of the other candidates were that good! All these Is that claim he was so un-electable … would they have even voted in a GOP primary for lieutenant governor in and off-off year?


    1. Chris – Really enjoy your blog.

      Since I think you are a Libertarian, I am puzzled about your attitude towards primaries. When you speak of open primaries, what you are really saying is that political parties have no right to exist. As I mentioned in my post that would be clearly contrary to the First Amendment, and it gives government an unnecessary role in the selection of candidates.

      Note your own article => Because Conservatives/Republicans want to select their own candidates, that is why they want party registration.

      The minute we let the camel’s nose under the tent one thing leads to another.


  4. If an incumbent is failing to do his duty and not serving the needs of his constituents, how does that translate into an advantage in a primary contest or in a general election? Who would vote for such a person. You, Tom and I certainly would not.


  5. I doubt that incumbents have any natural advantage in primaries if they are not competent and are not fulfilling their obligations to the voters. In other words, one cannot evaluate the efficacy of the primary as a nominating process by asserting that they protect incumbents. Competent incumbents have the advantage of name recognition in a primary, but that’s an advantage that also extends to their competitiveness in a general election.

    In Virginia, at least, the Republican “Establishment” chose a convention over a primary this past cycle. So I guess it depends which Establishment we’re talking about.


    1. “scout” wrote: “I doubt that incumbents have any natural advantage in primaries if they are not competent and are not fulfilling their obligations to the voters.”

      I do not think that you could find any paper on elections that agrees with you. I have never heard your assertion even put forward rhetorically in any political analysis.

      ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle


  6. What are the “two wrongs”? You may be confusing me with someone else. I said nothing of the sort. I did say that I found interesting the idea of the top vote-getters in primaries running in the general, even if they are of the same party. Not sure what your “two wrongs” comment or the passage from Ecclesiastes has to do with that.

    I would take the position that confining the nominating process to conventions does nothing to “break the stranglehold The Establishment has upon our electoral system.” If the “Establishment” is a narrow group of power brokers, they would have a much easier time controlling a convention than they would a primary. In fact, in Virginia last time around, the Party “Establishment” used the convention device to control the nominating process in order to prevent more electable candidates from being nominated.

    Of course, if you view a smaller circle of selecting officials as preferable to a larger one, you and I could form a political party where the two of us choose the candidates. But, in that case, I guess you and I would be regarded as “The Establishment”.


    1. I did not have to prompt you to say “the State has granted the Rs and Ds a kind of monopoly (or duopoly) on access to the ballot.” However, your supposed fix, primary elections, fixes the problem by granting incumbents even more control.

      Unless primary elections selected different nominees, they would have no reason to exist. And it does not take a wonk to figure out The Establishment prefers primary elections.


  7. I sort of agree with you in concept, that political parties should be able to choose their candidates as they see fit. The part that is left out of the discussion, at least thus far, however, is that the State has granted the Rs and Ds a kind of monopoly (or duopoly) on access to the ballot. If we had twenty political parties and some chose their candidates by drawing lots, some by having a game of horseshoes, some by a nominating convention, and some by primary, your point would be stronger. But, in Virginia and many other places, the state government has created barriers to access to the ballot that means that the People’s government has devolved on two interest groups pretty much total control over the path to election. With that constraint, there exists at least a moral and ethical obligation to find candidates who can appeal to the widest possible number of Virginians. Open primaries serve that purpose. Aside from that, chris’s point is a strong one – that a general primary hones the candidates and provides seasoned, experienced candidates in the general. Does that mean they always win? No, of course not. But it does ensure that one weeds out futile candidacies.

    I’ve heard your point many times – that winning isn’t the point. Like so many other facets of politics, you may be right in some circumstances. But at some point, winning in a democratic republic is how one proof tests ideas and finds what will work for a complex, polyglot nation.

    I am very interested in the experiment that is taking place in some jurisdictions (this seems to be a West Coast phenomenon) where one has a primary and the general election candidates are the two primary candidates who get the most votes – whether Rs or Ds. We’ll have to watch that for a while to see how it delivers good governance, but I think it is a creative and promising idea.


    1. So two wrongs make a right?

      Think about what you are in effect saying. With every successive wrong, we have more justification for the next wrong we do.

      Ecclesiastes 7:27-29 New Century Version (NCV)

      27 The Teacher says, “This is what I learned:
      I added all these things together
      to find some meaning for everything.
      28 While I was searching,
      I did not find one man among the thousands I found.
      Nor did I find a woman among all these.
      29 One thing I have learned:
      God made people good,
      but they have found all kinds of ways to be bad.”

      We cannot compensate for all the ways we find to be bad by doing more bad things. When we can, we can only do our best to do what is right.

      Instead of doing more evil, we need to break the stranglehold The Establishment has upon our electoral system. Conventions are one way we do exactly that.


  8. Two rounds are definitely required. The lack of that process was how a mostly conservative Chilean populace wound up with a Marxist president (Salvador Allende). He got about 34% of the popular vote (a plurality by about 0.1%), followed by the Chilean Congress then picking their favorite coalition, in which case the more corruption the better.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle


    1. Thanks for the comment. I was not aware Allende achieve office with such a small plurality. In our nation, we now almost certainly risk as much as Chile did then. We have too many on the government dole. Just as we should fear to be taxed without fair representation, we should also fear those who have representation without taxation. In the latter lies the beginnings of tyranny.


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