Oval Office Thunderdome: Tuesday in Ohio

I am from Ohio. A good deal of family and friends still live in Ohio. Today, most of them, their friends, family, and colleagues, voted in the Ohio presidential primary, one of four states to hold nominating contests today. Ohio has an open primary, which means that a voter may cast their vote in the primary for a candidate regardless of party affiliation.

Even having lived in New York for almost nine years, I still sometimes think about what I would do, and what decisions I would make, if I still lived in the Buckeye State. The day of an open primary is ripe for such speculation, and led me to consider a scenario that is as unlikely as it is unprecedented (as far as I know), but which had the potential to shape the outcome of American politics for at least the next four years. And it all has to do with those open primaries.

Open primaries are nothing new. But today in Ohio, Republican voters had an opportunity to shape the national contest in a unique way. I’ll explain.

For the past two weeks, in the run-up to today’s primaries, Ohio has been in the news everyday. Both Democratic candidates, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have been all over the airwaves, in debates, campaign appearances, and commercials, both pandering to the local concerns of Ohio residents. Little has been said of national relevance, the bulk of the rhetoric dealing with disappearing and unrecoverable manufacturing jobs, but that’s par for the course. After all, while campaigning in Iowa, no candidate can say enough about the benefits of corn subsidies, despite their overriding uselessness. In Ohio, however, due to personal and historical connections, I’m more than a little disgusted that both Obama and Clinton are able to play on Ohioans’ economic fears so blatantly in the pursuit of votes. But that’s neither here nor there. Were I still a resident of Ohio, and were I to vote in the Democratic primary out of true support for one candidate or the other, nothing that’s gone on or been said in the last two weeks would have swayed my opinion. But if I had planned to vote in the GOP primary, those plans would have been altered by the success of Senator John McCain in securing his party’s nomination.

Normally, primaries can be such dull affairs, the will of the voter supplanted by the gears of machine politics, at least on the local and state levels, and oftentimes when voting in a race for Congress. Presidential politics is something completely different. Despite the disconnect the Electoral College creates between voter and eventual President, the nominating contests have an openness and unpredictability that most races in the country lack. Spread over many months across the entire country, the states that hold nominating primaries and caucuses early have disproportionate authority in choosing a party’s candidate in the general election, which leaves the majority of states holding meaningless primaries with abysmal turnout after the nominee has been already decided. But not this year.

This year many states were so unhappy with their normal also-ran status in selecting presidential candidates that they chose to move their primaries and caucuses forward on the calendar in order to make them, and their states’ voters, relevant before November. Say what you will about the chaos of our nominating system, this year has beheld a perfect storm of circumstances (wide-open pool of candidates in both major parties, primary calendar leapfrog), providing the most compelling nominating process in decades.

Not all races being equal, however, the GOP nomination was locked up by McCain weeks ago, but Obama and Clinton are still in tight competition for the Democratic nomination, despite the desperate realities of Clinton’s delegate count. All the scenarios and outcomes of the primary season, but most especially the ascendancy of McCain, lead me to the conclusion that voting for McCain in the Ohio primary today would be a wasted vote. In fact, more than a wasted vote.

Take, for example, the general election of 2004. A vote for George W. Bush in New York, or John Kerry in Utah, were wasted votes, because they had no bearing on the outcome of the election, those state’s respective electors going to the candidates on a winner-take-all basis.

In Ohio, however, during the primary, a vote for McCain is a wasted vote, but doubly so, because that vote could have been used towards determining whom McCain will face in the general election.

Think about that for a second. The confluence of events in this election has given GOP voters the opportunity to deny their man votes, cross the aisle, and cast them for the Democrat they think McCain could best compete against.

As I wrote earlier, this scenario is unlikely, mostly because it lacks precedence. The most familiar open primary in the presidential nominating process belongs to New Hampshire. Since it comes so early in the game, however, voters are reluctant to vote for a candidate from another party because the candidate they support is most likely still locked in a contest of their own, and needs the votes. McCain no longer has that problem. His supporters are free to throw their votes wherever they wish, and will do no damage to his campaign.

If I were a McCain supporter, and felt he would fare better in a general election against, say, Clinton rather than Obama (as conventional wisdom suggests), I would have voted for Clinton today in Ohio, or vice versa. Sure, this could backfire further down the road (be careful what you wish for...), and an organized get out the vote effort for another party’s candidate could be fatal for McCain, but it is indeed a compelling theoretical possibility.

Most campaigns would love to be able to pick their candidate’s opponent. It would allow them to choose the candidate that is comparatively weaker in the majority of categories important in any election (electability, record, finances, past indiscretions, etc.), and to more thoroughly prepare for the grind of a campaign. Such an advantage would allow a candidate the chance to keep their opponent constantly on defense, and could prove decisive in a close election.

Since this idea is far-fetched and unproven, there is little immediate need to close this loophole in election law. Indeed, after some thought, I believe the benefits of open primaries, by allowing a person to vote their preference outside of their normal loyalties, outweigh the rare instances when malicious votes such as those described could be effectively cast. All I’m doing is pointing out that the GOP had a unique opportunity in Ohio today. One so unique that it appears taking advantage of it was never a possibility, nor is there any evidence that anyone even tried or knew how.