Belmont Club

Primary Colors

Leo Linbeck III, a long time commenter who most of you know well, makes an impassioned appeal to all voters — whether Democratic or Republican — to get involved and change Washington by altering the composition of their parties.  The only way to do this, he argues, is for every qualified voter to participate to the utmost in the primary election of the dominant party in their district (that is, if you live in a Democratic district, you should vote in the Democratic primary, even if you’re a conservative, since that primary really determines who will represent you). Most primary contests are walkovers. Some are unopposed. But whether Democratic or Republican, they are the Party of Washington renominating themselves. This cannot continue if change is ever to occur. Here’s Leo’s letter:

Richard,

I know you normally don’t reprint letters you get, but I’m hoping you’ll consider making an exception in this case.

As you know, I’ve been a commenter over the years on the Belmont Club. I rarely comment elsewhere, both because your blog is extraordinary and the camaraderie and insight of the BC is unmatched in the blogosphere. In many ways, my own political awakening was prompted by reading and exploring ideas that you’ve generated, and the follow-on commentary by club members. I don’t always agree with the comments, but it is always enlightening and thought-provoking. And I’m proud to have shared, in some small way, in the commentary myself (actually, my posts are generally too long, sort of like this email…).

So, given how much the club means to me, I’d like to share with the BC community one of the projects I’ve been working on, in the hope that they’ll help out with it. (More on that below.)

The US is facing a tremendous challenge in the coming years, one that will test the mettle of our nation. We have allowed too much power to become concentrated in Washington DC, and that power has dangerously corrupted our system of governance. The federal government spends too much, regulates too much, borrows too much, and is on an unsustainable path. Lobbyists, politicians, bureaucrats, and the “bigs” (big corporations, big unions, and big special interest groups) love and abet this concentration of power, as it enhances their own power, prestige, influence, and net worth. The result is a self-reinforcing cycle of power to get the money, and money to protect and accumulate the power.

This much is well-understood by members of the Belmont Club. The question that I’ve been working on is this: what can we do about it?

After a couple of years of engagement in and research on the political system, I think I’ve got the answer. And it’s embarrassingly simple:

Disrupt the power structure in Congress by dramatically increasing voter turnout in US House primary elections, forcing entrenched incumbents to really compete for their seat.

Elections still matter, and primary elections are the one place where the people can rise up and make a dramatic impact.

First, let’s start with some facts:

1. The accountability system for Congress is broken. In November 2010, the approval rating of Congress was 17%. The House re-election rate was 86%. QED.

2. About 85% of districts are not competitive in the general election. We can argue over the causes, but the fact remains that 5 out of every 6 House districts are dominated by one party – either Democrats or Republicans.

3. The average margin of victory for incumbents in the 2010 general election was 26%. So, for the vast majority of incumbents, there is no way they will lose a general election. Their seat is “safe.”

4. Virtually all of the power in Washington DC is held by long-term incumbents in safe seats. The leadership of both parties; the committee chairs; the ranking members; the campaign committees (NRCC and DCCC). These are the folks who set the tone and direction of the House, and they are all shoo-ins in the general election.

5. Congress is the most powerful branch of government, and the House is the most powerful chamber of Congress. The House is the motive force of the federal government; the Senate wields its power through it’s ability to say “no”; the House is the entity that is designed to say “yes.”

6. The President is term-limited, but Congress is not. Presidents eventually move on; some members of Congress stay for decades. But because of the Supreme Court, term limits on Congress can only be passed by Congress. Good luck with that in the current system.

7. The average tenure of the House has grown from about 2 years during the entire 19th Century to about 10 years today.

If we want to restore accountability, we have to make long-term, powerful members of the House compete for their seat. Really compete. But those members cannot lose in general elections. They’re fake fights, like professional wrestling. The outcome is determined well in advance of the election (and they split the gate ;-).

That leaves primaries. At first blush, primaries are not competitive:

8. In 2010, 396 incumbents ran for re-election. The total that lost a primary challenge was four.

9. From 2002-2008 (four elections), a total of 12 incumbents lost a primary challenge. Over that same time period, 13 died in office. (IOW: God creates more turnover than primaries.)

10. In 2010, 62% of House incumbents faced no primary challenger. They ran unopposed.

11. Of the 38% who had an opponent, the average margin of victory was 66%.

12. Incumbents, the parties, lobbyists, and establishment donors work to keep competition out of primaries. They freeze out challengers, they prevent the best consultants from working against them, they direct their money to the incumbent; these are just some of the ways that incumbents are protected from competition in primaries.

13. Just 10% of the voting age population votes in the dominant primary in their House district. IOW, if you live in a Republican district, only the Republican primary matters for selecting your representative, and only about 10% of eligible voters vote in that primary. Same is true for Democratic districts. And those voters tend to be strongly supportive of the party establishment.

The last point is the most crucial one. “The definition of the alternatives is the supreme act of political power.” (E. E. Schattschneider) And just 10% of the citizenry wield that power in Congressional elections. But this is also the Achilles’ Heel of the current system. Because turnout is so low, primary elections are where incumbents could be most vulnerable. The average primary election turnout is just 40,000-50,000 votes. This means that a few thousand votes can determine the outcome.

I have done a deep dive into the primary system, and believe that we can exploit this system to reclaim sovereignty for the citizens by disrupting the power structure in Congress, making entrenched incumbents face real competition in 2012.

To achieve this goal, I’ve worked with a group of folks around the country to design two campaigns. Today, I want to describe one of these campaigns, and to ask the Belmont Club for help. (If the reaction is positive, I will send you another note in the near future describing the other campaign.)

I have co-founded an organization called the Alliance for Self-Governance (ASG – www.alliance4selfgovernance.org). ASG is sponsoring an initiative called the Primary Pledge Campaign. (Just so you know, the funding from ASG comes from people like me – not from the parties, or the establishment, or from “boogiemen” like Soros or the Kochs. Most of them are entrepreneurs and small business leaders, and they’re from all around the country. Not people who want the ring of power, so to speak. More like hobbits. ;-)

We are asking citizens to sign a pledge promising that they will vote in the primary election in 2012. We are focusing our efforts on general election voters who do not typically vote in primaries – this is about 60% of general election voters. But anyone can sign the pledge. It’s very simple, and only commits the signer to make every effort to show up and vote in the primary.

To take the pledge, you simply have to go to this URL and fill out a simple form:

http://alliance4selfgovernance.org/primarypledge/index.html

We will put signers on an email list to give them more information about the primary in your area. If you rarely or never vote in a primary, you probably don’t even know when or where to vote. Candidates rarely communicate with non-primary voters during the primary season, and the press does very little to cover primary elections. We will send pledge signers information on when their primary election will take place, where to vote, how to register to vote in a primary (although most states have open primaries, or allow “independent” voters to register at the polls), and so on. One thing we won’t do is tell you how to vote. ASG is not endorsing specific candidates. And because our effort is focused on “safe seats,” it is unlikely to change the balance of power between the parties. But, better, it has the potential to change the balance of power between the Incumbent Party (both branches) and the citizenry.

At the end of the day, we just want more people to vote in the only election that will make a difference: the primary. The political elite want to suppress primary turnout; we want to dramatically increase it.

You see, the system, as it currently exists, misleads the average voter. We are told that the “real” election is in November, while the outcome is really determined months in advance by a small group of people. ASG wants to correct this misunderstanding, and increase the turnout in primaries. We believe that if more people show and vote in primaries, we will have a better chance of creating accountability within the political class in Washington DC. Higher primary turnout changes the rules of the game, and makes every elected official more vulnerable. We believe that every representative should have to compete in every election. If they win, fine. But the current system suppresses competition, to the detriment of our system of self-governance.

So, here’s my request of Belmont Club members:

1. Take the Primary Pledge. It’s quick and easy.

2. Send an email to as many people as you’re willing – friends, family, co-workers, or anyone else – encouraging them to take the Primary Pledge. Nothing has the impact of an email from someone you know. Feel free to use any or all of the facts outlined above to make the case. Once people learn the numbers, it’s pretty compelling that primaries are our best leverage point for changing the system. When you send the email, encourage them to both sign the pledge and pass the word on to others. We want the idea of voting in primaries to spread virally.

That’s it. Take the Primary Pledge, and help spread the word. (Oh, and if anyone wants to donate, there’s a donate button on the website. ASG is a 501(c)(4) non-profit, so donations are not tax deductible. And you don’t have to give to take the pledge.)

One final thought: if possible, folks should encourage leaders in their community to consider challenging their incumbent House member. You can’t create competition without a competitor; to create accountability for Congress, people with talent must step up and take on the political establishment. The 2012 cycle is the best opportunity in a generation to unseat an entrenched incumbent. The mood of the voters is anxious and angry, and those that seize this opportunity will have a great chance to win. And the second campaign I alluded to above will help level the playing field. But that’s a topic for a later time…

Thanks for helping get the word out on this project, and for all of your inspiring leadership as the proprietor of the Belmont Club.

Best,

L3

Leo Linbeck III
President and CEO
Aquinas Companies, LLC

Adjunct Professor
Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University
Houston, Texas

Lecturer
Stanford Graduate School of Business
Palo Alto, California


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