The case against primaries

The opposition rank and file sees it as self-evident that there should be a primary election to choose a single opposition candidate to run against Chavez in December....

The opposition rank and file sees it as self-evident that there should be a primary election to choose a single opposition candidate to run against Chavez in December. Frustration that the idea doesn’t seem to be gaining ground among potential candidates is just item umpteen in antichavistas’ frustration with their purported “leaders.” But is a primary really such a good idea?

Lets see. In the US, the country with the longest tradition of using primaries to choose presidential candidates, the trouble with the system is well understood. The Primary Dilemma, to give it a name, is that the positions a candidate has to take to win a primary are often at odds with the positions that win general elections.

The Democratic Party primaries are decided mostly by democrats – who by definition are more liberal than the electorate as a whole. In order to be competitive in the primaries, Democrats come under a lot of pressure to parrot the Democrat party line on a whole series of divisive issues – from affirmative action to teachers’ unions to gun control. But those positions are obviously more popular with Democrats than with the electorate as a whole, so a candidate who wins a primary by sticking closely to the party line finds himself in trouble in the fall.

Of course, Republican primary candidates face a symmetric dilemma.

Now, four decades of experience with the system have served a purpose in the US: American party loyalists have learned the hard way that selecting candidates who are too partisan is a losing strategy for the fall. Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 campaign cured the GOP’s appetite for extreme partisanship in primary candidates, and George McGovern’s 1972 and Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign worked in the same way for the Democrats. By now, primary voters are well aware that it’s no use choosing somebody who can’t win in the fall. In other words, primary voters understand the Primary Dilemma, and so “electability” has become one of the key elements in primary voting decisions (even if, as the Kerry experience shows, primary voters don’t always get it right.)

Trouble is, Venezuela doesn’t have decades of experience with primaries, and the level of hysterical polarization is even higher than in hysterically polarized D.C. In those conditions, the Primary Dilemma would be especially damaging: oppo pre-candidates would come under extreme pressure to adopt a radical anti-Chavez posture. Certainly, only the hardest of the opposition hard-core could be expected to turn out to a criollo primary, so it’s easy to imagine how any sign of moderation would immediately undermine an oppo pre-candidate’s chances.

The likelihood, then, is that a primary would weed out the candidates with the best chance to beat Chavez, and work in favor of the kind of comecandela radicalism that polling shows can’t possibly rally a majority against Chavez.

In fact, as a brand, “The Opposition” is so tarnished today that winning an “opposition primary” would be an albatross around the winner’s neck. Tagged as “the” opposition candidate, it would be extraordinarily difficult for any politician to credibly woo wavering chavistas – which is absolutely necessary if we’re going to have a prayer in December.

So far, the candidate who has run the smartest (though not the most successful) pre-campaign has built it around shunning the “opposition” label altogether and explicitly reaching out to chavistas. Some twist on that strategy is inevitable if we want to have a chance in December. But would someone who regularly gets in front of crowds and says “both are right, not one step backward AND they shall not return!” (¡Ni un paso atras Y no volverán!) have any chance at all in an oppo primary? I really don’t think so.

The alternative? Simple: the implicit primary. Let all of them run. In time, one of them will take a lead in the polls. Antichavez voters will eventually see which way the wind is blowing and line up behind the front-runner. You don’t have to pre-plan polarization in an atmosphere like Venezuela’s: if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last seven years is that it happens all by itself.