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American primaries can be long and frustrating, but Canada could learn from them

By in Opinions

They say that in politics, a year is a lifetime. This certainly seems true every four years when the United States goes through a presidential election.

Although the year has just begun, and the election isn’t until Nov. 6, Democrats and Republicans have been eyeing the 2012 election almost since Barack Obama took the last one. As a result of this perpetual campaigning, politicians in both major parties shirk actually making hard choices and governing their country, focusing instead on short-term rhetorical victories and getting the best talking points on TV.

But as tiresome as the U.S. presidential campaigns can get, there is a silver lining. Starting with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, Americans will have an ongoing discussion about where their country is headed and what to do about it for the better part of a year. During that time, the state-by-state primary system lets many regular voters hear candidates’ ideas and more directly affect the process.

This is a far cry from how party nominations used to be won — the proverbial smoke-filled room of elites choosing a candidate behind closed doors. The modern primary system arose in the 1970s largely as a response to the influence of insiders.

The primaries and caucuses allow for some surprises too. Think back to the little-known senator from Illinois whose long, gruelling campaign ultimately led him to the White House against much better-known opponents. Indeed, had it been up to the two parties’ elites, the 2008 contest would have been between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

Other successful candidates who came from behind through successful primary campaigns include Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

This year’s Republican contest has been particularly interesting, given that all the GOP candidates had varying levels of support throughout the last year.

Mitt Romney, the so-called establishment candidate and former governor of Massachusetts, seems best placed to defeat Obama in November, but the GOP voters remain unconvinced of his conservative chops. Many evangelicals, meanwhile, simply can’t trust a Mormon.

Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, is disliked by too many voters who remember his crusade against Bill Clinton’s blowjob in the ’90s — all while he was cheating on his wife with a Congressional staffer.

Texas congressman Ron Paul has provoked a rare discussion about American foreign policy and his libertarian views have inspired many Tea Party activists, but they are also too far on the fringe for many mainstream voters.

Other candidates have no name-recognition or are just completely unelectable: Almost no one has heard of the excellent Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor; Michele Bachmann claimed once that HPV vaccines could cause “mental retardation” and her husband promotes gay conversion therapy; former senator Rick Santorum’s name has forever been associated with “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex” thanks to Google search results.

But the uncertainty of the nomination fight isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is always pressure for parties to settle on nominees quickly so as to focus on the general election, but a prolonged nomination fight also means more voices and more choices for primary voters.

Most Canadian voters, by comparison, only experience such an exchange of ideas at election time every few years. Now that the Conservatives have a majority and no longer have to worry about the fractious politics of minority parliaments, there is likely less focus than ever on what the parties are saying or doing. Leadership contests in Canada are rare and largely closed affairs, for party faithful only. This system looks set to change, however. The Liberal Party, in a bid to re-engage voters and rebuild the shattered party, may hold open American-style primaries to choose its next leader.

There are, of course, drawbacks to the primary system, not least of which is the shoddy coverage it gets from the press. Media often engage in horse-race coverage and make each opinion poll the leading news item rather than explaining and examining the proposals of candidates. The primary system is still a more transparent approach, and even though we will all be howling in frustration after several more months of the American election, our Southern neighbours are still taking part in an exciting exercise of democracy this year.


Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf

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