Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Don’t want to pick between Trump & Clinton? Take the primaries back from partisans

About 600,000 SC voters turned out for the 2012 Republican presidential primary — half the number who voted for eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the general election.
About 600,000 SC voters turned out for the 2012 Republican presidential primary — half the number who voted for eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the general election. AP

FOUR YEARS AGO, S.C. Republicans went ga-ga over Newt Gingrich, handing him an impressive 40 percent of the vote in what was still a very competitive four-man field.

Or so the story went.

It’s true that Republican primary voters fell hard for the bellicose former speaker of the House. But South Carolina Republicans? Not so much.

Just 22 percent of South Carolina’s registered voters participated in that year’s GOP presidential primary, which means just 9 percent of S.C. voters cast ballots for Mr. Gingrich.

Even if you set aside the people who vote Democratic in November, his numbers were hardly impressive: His 244,065 votes didn’t amount to even a quarter of the 1,071,645 votes that the eventual Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, received in the general election. Even Barack Obama received more than three times as many votes in November as Mr. Gingrich received in February.

My point is not to downplay the significance of Mr. Gingrich’s win: It went a long way toward discrediting South Carolina’s claim as the state that picks GOP presidential nominees. Rather, it’s to illustrate how narrow the primary electorate is.

And to call all of you stay-at-home voters to action.

Today, Donald Trump holds a commanding lead among people who say they plan to vote in Saturday’s Republican primary. If he does as well as the polls suggest, this could be the beginning of the end. We could regain our status as the state that picks Republican nominees — and help ensure that the 80 percent to 90 percent of South Carolina voters who do not cast ballots for him will be stuck in November with choosing between Donald Trump and either Hillary Clinton or (possible but unlikely) Bernie Sanders.

A friend of mine likes to say if that’s the choice in November, he will walk dutifully into the voting booth — and shoot himself. I’d be right there with him, and I suspect most S.C. voters would too. (I don’t know for sure, because no one is polling the majority of voters who skip the primaries, but it feels like a safe bet.)

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Donald Trump won’t win the S.C. primary, and a more acceptable November option will become a possibility, if enough of those 60 percent of S.C. voters who normally sit out the Republican and Democratic primaries get in the game.

I’ve written many times about the damage being done to our state and nation by the growing trend of elections being decided in party primaries, which attract voters who are much more doctrinaire and much less pragmatic and, let’s face it, closer to the political extremes than the ones who vote only in general elections. Even when we have contested general elections (increasingly rare in S.C. races), we still have to choose from candidates who are more extreme than most voters want.

But the problem isn’t with the system; it’s with all of those voters in the sensible center who sit out the primaries. At some level, I think, they’ve bought the argument that the primaries belong to the parties and that their purpose is to determine who represents the parties. But the primaries actually belong to all of us — and not just because we pay for them and our government runs them. Given the near impossibility of an independent winning in November, what primaries actually do is decide who those of us who aren’t partisans get to consider for important public offices.

Why in the world would the 1.1 million South Carolinians who vote Republican in November let fewer than 300,000 people decide who’s on the ballot?

We are fortunate in South Carolina that we don’t have to sign a blood oath in order to participate in the primary elections. We don’t register by party, so every registered voter is eligible to vote in Saturday’s Republican primary. (Every registered voter who doesn’t vote Saturday can vote in the Democratic primary the following Saturday.)

We all know that the Republican candidate is going to carry South Carolina in November — probably even if it’s Mr. Trump. That means he’ll get all of our Electoral College votes, whether he wins by a landslide or just eight votes. And that means this is the one opportunity we have to participate in the selection of our next president. It is not only our right but our civic duty to take advantage of it.

This is true in any presidential election, but it’s more urgent this year, because our nation has become so much more polarized, the Democratic candidates both have so much baggage, and Republican primary voters seem determined to nominate someone who is wholly unfit to be president; even their second choice would be a disaster.

I’m warming to John Kasich, whose pragmatism and refusal to peddle anger and division remind me a lot of Jon Huntsman four years ago and John McCain before him. But he’s one of three Republicans who would make a respectable nominee. Please, vote for one of them.

If you don’t, you’ll have only yourself to blame for the horrible choice you have to make in November.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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