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Don't Treat the General Election Like a Primary
April 17, 2004
By David Swanson

Because I'm convinced that the current occupant of the White House is off-the-charts, beyond-the-pale, outside-the-normal-range worse than any of his predecessors, I am continually amazed when I meet people who oppose Bush in the strongest terms and then indicate their plans to vote for Nader or another third-party candidate - or to not vote at all, but certainly not to pour their hearts and souls into winning votes for Kerry. Of course, I agree with many criticisms of Kerry, but I can't understand this insistence on treating a general election as if it were a primary.

I've found my most effective argument to convince the Kerry-Is-a-Lesser-Evil-But-That's-Still-Evil crowd that I share their goals is that I spent the better part of a year trying quite unsuccessfully to persuade Americans not to treat the Democratic primaries as if they were a general election. Rather than voting for their favorite candidate - the one who they thought would make the strongest nominee against Bush - many primary voters backed whoever the media dubbed "electable" and whoever was in the lead following the previous state's primary - thus giving substance to the concept of "momentum," which ought not to exist in the primaries.

Another concept that makes no sense in primaries but cropped up in all of them is "spoiler." The primaries don't use instant runoff voting, although those states that use caucuses provide on a small scale the opportunity to switch your vote if your first choice lacks sufficient support. But the primaries are not winner-take-all in each state. Voting for the candidate you like best does not spoil anything for the others and, if your candidate loses, your vote can still influence the party platform.

If you do not just have a favorite, but have strong preferences for a second choice or third choice, then there are cases in which you could reasonably vote against your first choice in a primary, but that sort of calculation did not seem to arise much among those who said they needed to vote for the leader with the momentum and show a united front against Bush. When the media asked whether it helped the party for candidates to disagree with each other, I always said "This is a primary. There's going to be a nominee no matter what, and we'll all support whoever the nominee is."

I worked for one of the candidates because his views were closest to my own and because I thought he would make the strongest challenger to Bush. In recent weeks both The New Republic and The Nation have printed columns complaining that the Democrats can't come up with ideas like free preschool or free college, both of which were part of my candidate's platform - or what would have been a platform had not the media, including both of those magazines - blacked it out.

I spoke to hundreds who said my candidate was their favorite (and I know the same happened to several other candidates), but that they needed to be "pragmatic" and vote for whoever was ahead. It would have been exactly as pragmatic to have stayed home and not voted, which is of course what most people did and always do in the most important part of our political process, the primaries.

Now it's the general election, and an astounding number of those complaining that they have to choose between evil and evil did not even vote in the primaries. But they and many who did vote in the primaries are now prepared to treat the general election like a primary. Of course, so is Ralph Nader. But we have a system in which it's winner-take-all in each state and in which the media will not support a progressive third party.

I agree with much of Ralph Nader's platform. I voted for him four years ago in a state (Virginia) that I didn't think Gore had a chance in. But it's too early now to be writing off states like Virginia for Kerry, and getting rid of Bush is too important for us not to be pouring our energies into registering and turning out Democrats in the most highly contested states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. Promoting a third party presidential candidate makes no sense even for the growth of a third party. Electing progressive Congress members would be wiser, since it can actually be done.

Bush has the worst economic record since Hoover at least, and the worst foreign affairs record ever - just count the former allies he's alienated and the American civilians killed, or look at the increased danger he has put us and others in. Bush's secrecy, corruption, and open contempt for the citizens who never elected him outdoes Nixon or any other.

We have created a full-time aggressive war-and-oil economy and defunded and attacked jobs, schools, health care, and the environment. We have corporations writing public policy and paying little or no taxes. The power of an ordinary person in our politics, like the value of the minimum wage, the opportunity to move ahead, and the wealth of working people, is plummeting alongside our civil rights and the wall between church and state. George W. Bush is a danger to this planet, and it is our responsibility to vote him out if we can't impeach him.

Senator Kerry would not pack the courts with Confederates and fascists. Kerry would not turn the EPA against the environment, OSHA against workplace safety, or the FCC against open communication. Kerry would move us in the direction of protecting the environment, in the direction of women's rights, away from government secrecy, and toward an economy in which jobs and paychecks matter, not just tax cuts for multi-millionaires.

Kerry was not the first choice for all of us, but Bush was not the first choice for many who still support him and understand what a general election is. We have two choices now, and the gap between them this time is wider than usual, not narrower. We have an unelected pirate in the White House. We can replace him with a respectable Democrat if we put our minds to it. Why would we work on anything else right now?

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