DID YOU VOTE for a candidate for president in the 2016 general election — or against one? I voted against one, and I’m still bitter about it.
Not about who won. Like most Americans, I wasn’t happy with the winner, but that’s not what left me bitter.
What left me bitter is the fact that my only options were a President Donald Trump or a President Hillary Clinton. I didn’t have the option of a President John Kasich — or even a President Marco Rubio or a President Jeb Bush. (Of course I’m disappointed that I didn’t have the option of a President Lindsey Graham, but not bitter, because I’m not sure he could have won the nomination even under my best-case scenario.)
I’m bitter because it didn’t have to be this way.
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It seems pretty clear that most S.C. voters — even committed Republicans — would have preferred better options in November. There might have been no avoiding a Hillary Clinton nomination, but I’m not so sure Mr. Trump would have won the nomination if he hadn’t won the S.C. primary. And he won that with just 240,882 votes — barely more than a tenth of the votes cast in South Carolina’s 2016 general election.
The reason he was able to win the primary, and possibly even the reason Mrs. Clinton won — and this is the bottom line for my bitterness — is that two-thirds of my fellow S.C. registered voters did not bother voting when it mattered most: in the primaries. Two-thirds of my fellow South Carolinians did not bother to give me — or themselves — better options in November.
I’m reminding you of this now because this is what happens time after time after time: A very small percent of us decide in the primaries whether all of us will have good candidates or bad candidates in November.
It’s actually a bigger problem in the state elections, because turnout in the presidential primaries is huge compared to turnout in our June state primaries. In 2016, 25 percent of registered voters participated in our Republican presidential primary, and 13 percent participated in our Democratic presidential primary. That June, just 14 percent of registered voters participated in the state Republican and Democratic primaries. Combined. The turnout was a little better two years earlier, when we had statewide contests on the ballot, but even then it was just 16 percent.
So if the trend holds, only about one in six registered voters will turn out on June 12 to decide who will be on the ballot in November or, in the many cases where the November election is uncontested, who will be elected. Drill down a little bit more, and that means fewer than 6 percent of South Carolina’s registered voters likely will vote for the candidates who win the Republican nominations for governor and attorney general. About 2 percent likely will vote for the person who turns out to be the Democratic nominee for governor.
If you’re not one of those people who vote in the primaries, this situation ought to infuriate you, because for the most part, the people picking your candidates aren’t a bit like you.
Voting isn’t like scientific polling, where questioning a relatively small number of people will give you pretty much the same results as questioning the entire population. Voters are self-selected, and the people who do and don’t vote in primaries come from different planets.
The people who sit out the primaries are less partisan and less ideological than the people who vote. Many of my fellow pragmatists refuse to vote in primaries, because they don’t want to associate themselves with a political party. Some people just think it’s none of their business. And, as I explained recently, it is a lot more difficult than voting in general elections., where you have the option of simply voting for all Democrats or all Republicans.
But there’s a price for sitting on the sidelines: The primaries are decided by people who are farther to the left and the right than the people who don’t vote. They’re decided by people who are angrier. By people who demand ideological purity, who consider compromise a dirty word. Primary voters tend to punish candidates who work across party lines — which of course creates a self-perpetuating cycle: Elected officials who work across party lines get defeated in primaries by people who promise not to work across party lines, and they keep those promises for fear of getting defeated themselves. Which is destroying our republic.
So come November, those in the sensible center are stuck with candidates who are farther to the left or the right than they are, with people who are less interested in working for pragmatic solutions than they are. (And, no, this isn’t an exact science; Mrs. Clinton defeated the more liberal challenger in the S.C. primary, and Mr. Trump’s positions back then were all over the map, so you could hardly call him the farthest to the right. But those two were outliers in so many other ways.)
That means we have to vote in June.
June 12, to be precise.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.