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How to Vote in the Primaries

An Indispensable Guide to Making the Right Choice

Chatter on the Line

Here’s a story my mother tells, from Election Day 1980. That was the year Reagan won the first time, soundly trouncing the incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter. But on that day there was a third candidate, John Anderson, a Congressman from Illinois who had been a Republican but was now running as an independent. He got 6.6% of the vote in 1980, which is a very respectable number for any independent candidate.

On that day, as she stood in line to vote, my mother relates that people were doing the usual thing to kill time: “Who are you voting for?” When they asked my mother, she said “John Anderson.”

“Oh, I like him,” someone in the line said.

My mother looked at this person, pretty sure what was going to happen next. “Great. So you’re going to vote for him?”

“What? Oh, no.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s not going to win.”

This is what’s known in some circles as strategic voting. In other circles, it’s known as the simple human desire to be on the winning side, and it was plain that year that Reagan would win. But it has always driven my mother crazy. “Imagine if people actually voted for the person they wanted to win,” she says, or words to that effect. (Mom, please forgive me for any misquotes.)

Reasons to Vote

There are all kinds of reasons to cast a vote for someone, but let’s boil them down into three categories: (1) the candidate looks good on paper so you make an HR decision to hire them; (2) you like them personally (the “have a beer with that guy” syndrome); or (3) you think they can do the job well, however that’s defined. Ideally, of course, you’d want all three things to be true in one candidate, but how often does that really happen?

Strategic Voting

Let’s look first at strategic voting, which operates a little differently in a primary than in a general election. Because what “they” tell you is, vote with your heart in the primary, and vote with your head in the general. Yet the reason why the Democrats are seemingly in disarray this year is, I suspect, because too many voters are trying to be strategic — in different directions. Everyone says they want a candidate who’s “electable,” but no one can define what electability is, beyond “someone who can beat Trump.” And since no one really knows how to beat Trump, they’re all pulling in different directions.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

Strategic voting is intended to accomplish some purpose beyond the election itself; whether it’s aligning with the winning team even if you don’t feel that strongly about the candidate (as in the Reagan example above), or making a statement to a political party that you don’t much like how they’re doing things. (I confess: I voted for Nader in 2000 because I was annoyed with the Gore campaign. I was trying to make a point. It didn’t work.)

Strategic voting most closely aligns with the first option above: the HR decision. That’s when you’ve got one slot to fill and two good candidates. One went to Harvard, one went to the University of Illinois-Urbana, and you don’t really know anything else about them (or care) so you go with Harvard.

Hillary Clinton was an HR decision, the impeccably credentialed insider with, as everyone kept saying, the best resumé in the country. But she was, let’s be honest, a terrible campaigner, and just enough people stayed home, uninspired, to leave a door open for Trump to sneak through.

I suggest that strategic voting rarely, if ever, accomplishes its purpose. You’ve already abandoned the candidate you feel the most strongly about, for whatever reason, but the mission you’re trying to accomplish almost never works either. Instead of a coordinated, strategic decision to determine the strongest candidate against Trump, you see instead the kind of grand chaos that Democrats do so well. There are even rumblings of a contested convention, which hasn’t been seen since, oh, the Trojan War I believe.

Voting From the Heart — Part A

There are two kinds of voters, both of whom are voting from a different part of the heart. The one who’d like to have a beer with the candidate of their choice is making, to mix bodily metaphors, a gut choice. They’ve just got a feeling about so-and-so. It’s an emotional decision — either they just like the person and would love to hang with them (in other words, the candidate reminds them of themselves), or they think the candidate is tough as nails and you’ve gotta be tough in a tough world, dammit.

Exhibit A for that kind of candidate is, of course, Donald J. Trump. The trouble with Trump is that he’s relentless about pushing his followers’ emotional buttons, and while the most ardent ones absolutely love it and can’t get enough of it, it’s utterly exhausting to everyone else. It’s like living 24/7 with a spinning instructor who keeps up that same energy all damn day long. And Trump’s counterpart on the other side is Bernie Sanders, who elicits the same kind of worryingly cultlike devotion.

The essential problem with voting for someone for purely emotional reasons is that emotions are jangled and ephemeral. What seemed irresistible at one moment can seem incomprehensible a short while later. Just ask anyone who got married in Las Vegas on a Saturday and divorced in Reno on a Sunday.

Voting From the Heart — Part B

Which leaves us with the third category: Because you think they can do the job well. This synthetic approach seems strong on the surface, combining the HR strategy (strong credentials) with the from-the-gut reaction (you feel she or he has the toughness or the character to really fight for your views), and hopefully there might be some poetry to bind it all together. (How many liberals wish that The West Wing’s President Bartlet was real?)

Unfortunately, historically, this approach has done very badly. Michael Dukakis tried to run on his competence in 1988, and he got wiped out. Democrats have always loved this kind of campaign, usually with Dukakis-like results. Just this year we’ve seen Biden, Harris, Warren, Klobuchar, Buttigieg and even Sanders (“I wrote the damn bill!”) all running versions of it. Cory Booker tried to go the Obama route, adding an overlay of poetical inspiration on top of his mayor-and-senator competence claim, but he wasn’t as good at it as Obama and has already disappeared from the race.

Sometimes you get an obvious winner like Obama, who was likable, inspiring, and competent all at once. Those candidates, alas, are rare. In a year like this one, when no one is knocking it out of the park, it seems that none of the three approaches is working at all. Which suggests that ultimately, the only approach that really works is surprisingly simple.

There are various sources that attempt to match candidates’ positions with those of voters. There is, and similar online quizzes from The Washington Post and The New York Times. In far less than the time it takes to watch one of the debates, you answer a series of policy questions, in whatever level of detail you prefer. (For, it definitely pays to avoid the straight Yes/No choices, and to consistently look at the “Other Stances” box, which is where you can really pick the answer closest to your own.) Once you’re done, the site will match your answers to those of the candidates in the race, from both major parties. It gives you an easy, ranked list of who actually represents your opinions most closely.

It removes emotion from your choice, it diminishes the importance of the credentials argument, and boils everything down to a good clean list that, in my experience over several years of re-taking the quiz, consistently produces a list that’s remarkably close to how I had planned to vote anyway, while also occasionally giving me a bit of a surprise. (Klobuchar, for instance, came out near the top of my results list a couple months ago, leading me to take a closer look at her campaign.)

Therefore, here is…

The One-Sentence Answer to it All

Go to, take their quiz, then whoever’s at the top of your results list, vote for that person.

Boom. Done. Easy as that.

Because after all, mom knows best. Imagine if people actually voted for the person they wanted to win.




Dramatists Guild member, Climate Reality activist. Words WILL save the world, dangit.

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Robert Toombs

Robert Toombs

Dramatists Guild member, Climate Reality activist. Words WILL save the world, dangit.

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