SACRAMENTO — Gov. George W. Bush has been fretting that Democratic voters are going to crash the Republican party in South Carolina on Saturday and create mischief. Maybe they'll later act out in other states too, he suggests.
The Texan professes to worry that Democrats--who he seems to think spend their leisure time digesting political polls and watching C-SPAN--are cynically plotting to help nominate the Republican presidential candidate most likely to get beaten in November.
That cream puff Republican, Bush insists, is Sen. John McCain--the same underdog who clobbered him in New Hampshire with massive support from independents and centrists. The very same guy who is running--nationally and in California--significantly better than Bush in hypothetical November matchups with the Democratic leader, Vice President Al Gore.
"I just don't want Democrats coming in to beat me because they think my opponent will be weaker in November," Bush has been saying. "What I worry about--what I think about--is that Democrats come into the party and leave."
Nonsense, responds California Secretary of State Bill Jones, the state's highest-ranking Republican, who until Tuesday was a Bush supporter. He now has switched to McCain, but he's felt this way for years.
"I don't accept the assertion that Democrats are voting for a Republican to get the weakest candidate," Jones says. "Let me tell you something, people don't throw away their vote. They take it very seriously.
"Why are the Democrats who vote for George Bush OK and the Democrats who vote for John McCain no good?"
What Jones thinks Bush really is doing--and the main reason he defected to McCain--is cynically trying to depress the turnout of Democrats and independents. "No question," Jones says. "Because if the turnout is depressed, Republicans will still vote."
There is no Democratic primary in South Carolina to attract non-Republicans. An L.A. Times poll there last weekend showed that Bush was thumping McCain by 25 points among Republicans, but trailing by 34 among Democrats.
Like California and many states, South Carolina has an open primary. California's system--with its "blanket" ballot--is the most open of all. Generally in open primaries, voters select either a Democratic or Republican ballot. In California, voters are handed one ballot listing all the candidates. We can pick and choose, regardless of party.
But in our presidential primary March 7, only the votes of party members will count in awarding national convention delegates. That's a throwback to the old closed primary system, which voters thought they'd junked.
Jones still is lobbying the national parties to come to their senses and allot delegates based on open primary votes.
"I don't see how you can throw cold water on people in March and then invite them back into your home in November," he says. "It wouldn't work very well with my neighbors."
Jones could hand Bush a stack of research showing that voters are not conspiratorial. They don't play mischief in the other party. They're not as cynical as the politicians.
They usually vote for the candidate they think is the best. Old American custom.
They also just may be following the action: If there's no competition in their own party, they may cross over into the other and vote for a tolerable backup candidate, assuring acceptable options in November. Or they may cross over if the other party is certain to win in November, thus trying to achieve the best possible outcome.
But rarely do they try to nominate a weak candidate.
"That argument is ridiculous," says Tony Quinn, a GOP analyst and open primary advocate. "It virtually does not exist."
After California's first open primary in 1998, Jones commissioned a study by two political scientists, R. Michael Alvarez of Caltech and Jonathan Nagler of UC Riverside. They discovered that in the gubernatorial primary, only 2.6% of the Republican crossover voters--at most--played mischief in the Democratic contest.
The professors also have analyzed presidential primaries in several states back to 1980 and found little mischief.
Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, says, "We studied the hell out of the California primary"--including legislative races--and detected scant evidence of mischief among crossover voters. "Less than 5%."
That's a bargain trade-off, because many crossovers stay on the other side through November.
Bush should stop insulting the Democrats and eagerly welcome them to his party.