Congratulations to the estimated 1.5 million voters who made the trip to the polls yesterday for Michigan’s primary: Courtesy of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, you participated in a meaningless and counterproductive election.
Forgive me for being a little undemocratic, but Michigan would have been better off if it hadn’t held a primary at all. Taking this year off would have saved the state millions of dollars and left Michigan as uncharted territory for the general election. Instead of becoming a bottom-feeder, scrapping for any kind of primary influence it could muster, Michigan could have been a leader in the beauty pageant of swing states come spring.
Sure, the founding fathers might be collectively rolling over in their graves at the idea of a state government voluntarily disenfranchising its citizens in an election, but consider this: The DNC and RNC basically already did so. The DNC stripped all of Michigan’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention because it leapfrogged its primary into January. The RNC slapped Michigan on the wrist by stripping half of its delegates. All Michigan’s state legislature had to do to sell the disenfranchisement was play the blame game.
Although they are usually “free” in the sense that citizens have the ability to support candidates without fear of political retribution, what many people forget about free and fair elections is that they don’t come cheap. Despite having less than half its delegates, Michigan still paid full price for the election, which is expected to add up to an estimated $10 million and could end up costing even more.
A costly but meaningless election shouldn’t go over well with cash-strapped Michiganders. The state legislature didn’t need to shell out another $10 million to hold an election for two political parties that wouldn’t even save its seat at the national nominating conventions. Nothing obligates Michigan to hold primary elections.
Some argue, though, that Michigan’s primary was important regardless of whether it would be represented at the conventions. The key feature in this argument is momentum. Thanks to Michigan voters, native-son Republican candidate Mitt Romney received the first big victory of his underachieving campaign.
But momentum isn’t as pivotal if it’s expected, and Michigan’s results fit the script perfectly. With John Edwards and Barack Obama absent from the ballot, Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in for the win. The media might have built up John McCain as a threat to Romney, but realistically he was always a long shot. Romney has too many Michigan connections. His father, George Romney, was a popular governor here in the 1960s and young Mitt grew up here. You can’t beat the hometown boy.
Maybe what Michigan wanted yesterday wasn’t about results or influence. Maybe it just wanted a little attention, which it got. Michigan was briefly courted in the national spotlight like it had so selfishly desired when it moved its primary ahead of New Hampshire.
However, it’s a stretch to say that candidates were taking Michigan seriously. On the Republican side, Romney, McCain and Mike Huckabee managed to find time in the last two days to parrot a few stump speeches across the state. Bowing to party pressure, none of the major Democratic candidates even bothered to show up. Michigan’s exposure wasn’t even close to the months of door-to-door canvassing with which all of the major candidates, including Democrats, swooned Iowans. Rivaling Iowa and New Hampshire was the goal of holding Michigan’s primary early, and it turned out to be a failure.
Voters, probably unknowingly, tipped their hand in a different way, too. Included in the law establishing the new primary date is a section that allows the DNC and RNC access to lists of the people who voted in their respective primaries. For parties in a state without partisan registration, this is a wealth of useful information when trying to decipher voting trends, the legality of which was upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court in November 2007.
If Michigan had skipped the primary and held out until the general election, it would have been a mystery state. It would have been more difficult to gauge whether the state would go Democrat or Republican; support Clinton or turn against her; buy into Obama’s message of hope or discard him; and identify with Romney’s Michigan roots or see his fraudulence. These answers aren’t always easy to find in opinion polls because they depend on people not only caring but also caring enough to act. But we got partial answers to these questions yesterday, which ruins our mystique a little.
The sad truth is, not having a primary would have been better than having half of one.
Gary Graca is an associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.