Mike Edwards, co-author (with Danny Oppenheimer) of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well, on voting "strategically" and Super Tuesday. Mike founded and regularly contributes to Leftfielder.org, a blog on politics and media.
I grew up in a very liberal neighborhood in Minneapolis, MN, surrounded by people who thought that Paul Wellstone and Jesse Jackson were clearly the two most qualified men in the country to be President. Yet, virtually all of those people fell neatly in-line behind the Democratic Party nominee every November—and in most years, by the time the Spring caucuses rolled around they had already thrown their support behind a slightly less palatable, but perhaps more electable, candidate.
In short, they were faced with the same set of options now confronting Republican voters; when, and how, should one vote “strategically”? We all vote strategically—or for candidates who aren’t our first choice—and it is really a very rational approach to a winner-take-all election. The problem is that strategic voting ultimately relies on a self-fulfilling prophecy that can cause voters to abandon preferred candidates prematurely.
Take the Georgia election in the upcoming March 6 Super Tuesday primary. Recent polling in Georgia, according to the analysis by Nate Silver at the New York Times 538 blog, showed that Newt Gingrich holds a sizeable lead in Georgia, his home state and a place where he remains popular. Clearly he will win the state on Super Tuesday, right?
If the election were held in a vacuum, perhaps. Unfortunately for Gingrich, those Georgia voters have been feeling significant pressure leading up to Super Tuesday to vote strategically. Gingrich’s candidacy is no longer taken seriously outside of Georgia. Which means that, heading into Super Tuesday, those pro-Gingrich voters will have basically three choices:
1) Vote for Gingrich, despite the fact that it looks increasingly unlikely that Gingrich can win the nomination.
2) Vote for their second-place candidate—most analysts believe this to be Rick Santorum—because he has a more realistic chance to win the nomination.
3) Vote for whichever candidate they believe to be the inevitable nominee—most analysts believe this to be Mitt Romney—because of a desire to end the primary process quickly.
The irony, of course, is that Gingrich might have a chance to win the nomination if not for strategic voting concerns—or “momentum” as the pundits often call it. Until recently, after all, Gingrich had a sizeable lead in Georgia, and was seen as a viable contender in the other Super Tuesday states, especially Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and the various Western caucuses. But as voters in Michigan watched a few thousand caucus-goers in Colorado and Minnesota choose Santorum as their preferred non-Romney candidate, they decided to follow suit. And now, as Santorum is coming off a respectable 2nd place showing in Michigan, and holding a small lead in the Ohio polls, he has positioned himself as the “only viable” non-Romney candidate in all of those other Southern and Western states. This has in turn left Georgia as Gingrich’s last chance to demonstrate his “viability”—or perhaps as the place where the self-fulfilling prophecy of Gingrich’s doom finally comes to fruition.