What did I do this past weekend? I sat in and watched the Republican Party in my state hold a convention to nominate its state-wide ticket for November’s election: Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General. About 8,000 delegates were there, plus sundry speakers, media, protestors, etc.
Things that were not a surprise: (1) the word “conservative” was used almost as frequently as “Republican.” Here in this state, the GOP party faithful are not in the least bit afraid of being tarred with the C word. It was, actually, a significant conservative success to hold a convention rather than a primary, as the primary tends (around here) to allow the conservative vote be split between 4 good conservatives, and the plurality vote ends up going to the “moderate” RINO who can garner 30% of the vote in a primary (in part because the primary does not require voters to be Republican to weigh in on the Republican candidate – you can weigh in on either party’s candidates).
(2) A conservative won the nomination for governor. Well, he ran unopposed – that too was a substantial effect of using a convention rather than the primary method. The primary demands enormous amounts of money in advertising etc, and this automatically favors candidates who have a political “machine” in place. The current Lt. Governor, who has a good machine, wanted to have a primary, whereas the current attorney general (significantly more popular with the party faithful) probably has a lesser organization and would have been playing catch-up the whole way. When he managed to get the party to use a convention, the Lt. Governor threw in the towel and didn’t even enter his name in the ring. The resulting “selection” of nominee (voice vote) for governor became a victory lap for the unopposed current attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli.
(3) This is the first time I can recall a conservative nominee for governor using the expression “principled conservatism” to explain and distinguish his approach to governing, at least the first time I have heard it where I think he actually meant it. I certainly never thought that G. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” meant anything like “principled conservative”, even though there is nothing in principle that prevents a conservative from being compassionate.
(4) A relative conservative won the nomination for attorney general. I say “relative conservative” out of not having enough data to work with, not out of a conclusion about his actual politics.
Things that were a surprise: (1) Out of 7 candidates, the only complete outsider to political machines won the nomination for Lt. Governor. That was E. W. Jackson, a Protestant minister, an attorney, and a former radio show host. In addition to not having any political organization to speak of, he had raised the least amount of money of all 7 candidates, and not only was he an outsider in that sense of political machinery, he was also an outsider in terms of having held office. He has never held any public office.
(2) At the same time the voters were leaning toward an outsider for Lt. Governor, they picked a true insider for attorney general: Mark Obenshain. He was raised in politics as a child, with a very politically significant father, and has been in the state senate for 10 years. I was surprised that the voters would chose that combination.
(3) The convention was pretty poorly run, somewhere on a C- or D for a grade. They took notably too long to take votes, and FAR too long to tally votes. They apparently didn’t really plan for 4 rounds of voting for the Lt. Governor nomination, even though anyone with a shred of familiarity with conventions should have figured it out. They didn’t plan suitable activity / entertainment during the breaks for counting the votes. For instance, initially they only gave the candidates time for a 4 minute “introduction” and a 7 minute speech before the voting took place. That was hardly enough time to learn a lot about them (delegates should have done their homework beforehand, but the information available wasn’t complete.) During the down-time for counting the first vote they should have had the candidates come out with more developed material. Especially after they narrowed down the field to 5, and then to 3 candidates. While they were counting the second-to-last vote, they could have held a debate between the 3 still in contention at that point.
(4) They needed a much better system for handing out ballots, collecting them, and for counting them. I assume they had machines to do the counting, but does it really take machines 2 full hours to count 8,000 ballots? Only if they have too few machines doing the work, which was bad planning. If you have 10 machines, and feed in one ballot per 2 seconds, it only takes 30 minutes. Even if you have to do a recount, that’s another 30 minutes.
(5) A vote didn’t count as a vote. That is to say, there was some complicated weighting system that modified the weight of votes according to the proportion of delegates sent by a county or city to the number of Republican votes that county or city had in the past presidential or gubernatorial election. If a county turned out a lot of delegates, that gave them more votes but not necessarily a lot more weighted votes, which actually decided the issue.
There was a little bit of the more-or-less expected skullduggery at the cross-roads – it was politics, after all. They failed to give the vote-count or the ranking of the candidates from the 1st vote before the delegates had to cast the second round of voting for Lt. Gov. They only identified the bottom 2 candidates to drop them off the list. That’s not cricket. There was also a bit of fluffery of photocopied messages of “X endorses candidate Y” being delivered around, including supposedly one losing candidate throwing his support to the second-place guy, which he didn’t actually do. You expect some amount of that, so it’s not really a surprise. All in all, anyone with any familiarity with politics would have known that stuff was coming and taken it into account. I didn’t hear of anything truly shady / underhanded / dirty-politics for the convention.
My take-away: (A) the differences between the ranked outcomes in the race for Lt. Governor were sometimes just a couple dozen votes. If one family had not pushed a number of their friends and neighbors to attend, one of the candidates would not necessarily have made it out of the first round into the second, or out of the second into the third. And it didn’t take a huge amount of volunteer time or campaign money to win the nomination. So it matters under what form the democratic system runs. And given that it matters, getting involved at the local level by talking to friends about it and listening to them can actually affect the outcome.
(B) There remain a lot of decent, wholesome people in (this part of) America, even if they are often outnumbered. I am relatively convinced that E.W. Jackson won the nomination for L.G. because he spoke to a perceived need for morality – not just morality as applied narrowly to just administration of law, but more generally. There are practicing Christians who want their government at the highest levels to “look like them” not in terms of visual appearance, but in terms of underlying focus on the important things in life, which includes a normal Christian vision of “the common good”. He also made people feel good about _wanting_ government to be small, restrained, etc., not having to excuse themselves for feeling that way. E.W. Jackson, by the way, is black, and he won the nomination from an overwhelmingly white crowd of conservatives in the South. Anyone who thinks that racial prejudice is still the same grievous problem it was in 1950 hasn’t seen reality lately.