Retail politics: As good as it gets

By: Sandford BorinsThere is a world-wide trend to give the rank-and-file members of political parties a greater role in choosing the party leader. The Alberta Conservatives have taken this to the limit, choosing their leader by a ballot open to all party members. The federal Liberals chose most of the delegates in the 2006 leadership convention on a constituency-by-constituency basis, with all party members in the constituency entitled to vote.The American presidential primaries can be seen as another manifestation of this trend. They have generated a great deal of citizen engagement this time because there is no incumbent running and the incumbent's years in office are being seen by more and more Americans as a failed presidency. Thus millions of Americans want their voices heard in choosing someone – whether a Democrat or a Republican – who will not repeat the mistakes of the last seven years.The rules governing primaries are complicated. I asked my research assistant, who is a very quick study, to brief me about the rules in Ontario's two closest neighbours, New York and Michigan. After more research than either of us expected she got back to me.Here are the basics. Primaries are conducted by state and local government on behalf of the political parties. A key issue is whether a primary is closed, semi-closed, or open. Closed primaries are restricted to registered party members. In semi-closed primaries, independents (i.e., those not registered) can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries, but not both. In an open primary, registration is irrelevant, and any voter can vote in either primary.Primaries choose slates of delegates to the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions. In some states, the delegates are apportioned to candidates in proportion to their share of the vote, while others are winner-take-all. Delegates are committed to their candidates on the first ballot but, if no candidate gets a majority, may shift their allegiance on subsequent ballots.What I find attractive about the primaries is that they have come to epitomize retail face-to-face politics, with many opportunities for citizens to engage with one another and with the candidates.The earliest primaries are in small states and the candidates can, and are expected to, spend a lot of time meeting voters and giving public speeches. Primaries contrast sharply with media politics, where candidates speak in closed television studios to a small number of the faithful, in front of slogans and visual backdrops, all intended to produce a 20 second clip.CNN and YouTube are playing a major role in this year's primaries, with CNN broadcasting numerous all-candidate debates, using questions submitted on YouTube. Last Monday's Democratic debate featured Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama attacking each other's record and integrity.To me, politics in a democracy is about debate and making your case to skeptical audiences, and these confrontations are therefore a great instance of democratic politics.The primaries have been criticized because it is so expensive for a candidate to mount a campaign. With limitations on donations, the candidates have turned, successfully, to online solicitation of small donations.As I've discussed in my previous two postings, the candidates' Web sites play a supportive role, rather than supplanting retail politics. Online technology has emerged as an effective substitute for many face-to-face relationships or transactions, but not all, and politics is one where the face-to-face component remains essential.The fact that the party races are still relatively open suggests that the prevalence of retail politics will continue into the spring, as the candidates concentrate on the remaining primaries following Super-Tuesday (the 22 primaries being held on February 5).If none of the contenders have enough delegate support to win first ballot convention victories, we can expect to see a lot more retail politics over the spring and summer, as the candidates continue making their case to the public in order to win at the convention. Ultimately, democracy is the winner.

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