Demystifying The Role Of Political Independents
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In New Hampshire tomorrow, anyone registered as an independent can vote in either the Republican or the Democratic presidential primary. President Obama does not have a lot of organized opposition, so all the attention and most of the independents will focus on the more competitive Republican race.
And political professionals will pore over the results for omens and portents. In a recent column, Clarence Page wondered why. Yes, the number of registered independents grows as the rolls of Republicans and Democrats dwindle, but research suggests that very few so-called independents switch back and forth and that they do not decide close elections.
If you're a registered independent, call and tell us why, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, the FAA plays Grinch and grounds a flock of whooping cranes being guided by an ultralight aircraft.
But first, the role of independents. Clarence Page joins us here in Studio 3A. His column is syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. Always nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION, Clarence.
CLARENCE PAGE: Always great to be here, Neal, thank you.
CONAN: And independents would seem by definition to be the persuadable middle that every politician wants to win over.
PAGE: Well, they are persuadable, but they tend to not be persuaded very far, it turns out. This has intrigued me for years, that there have been studies - well, as far back as 1992 there was a book out called "The Myth of the Independent Voter." A team of about half-a-dozen professors pulled their research together and found that among people who declare themselves to be independent or - well, not undecided but who registered independent or who call themselves independent, that somewhere around 80, 85 percent of the time, they vote for one of the two parties.
In other words, they don't want to be identified with a particular party, but they tend to vote with that party. I call it the Groucho effect. Remember Groucho Marx wouldn't belong to a club that would accept him as a member? This is a bit of a reversal. We've got voters who will vote for the candidates of a certain party but won't declare themselves to be a part of it.
CONAN: Yet how does that explain the rise of independents, as yes, Democrats still I think far outnumber registered Republicans, but both of their roles are diminishing as the number of independents increases.
PAGE: It's true, and I think there's a lot of different reasons people will give you. Certainly initially I'd say the suburbanization of America, we've been seeing this kind of a trend happen since after World War II. You know, the old urban, heavily immigrant populations, you know, you'd have the precinct captain and the ward boss, and there were services that you turned to the organization to provide.
Even Chicago, the queen of machine cities, your average precinct captain, if there are any around now, is a 55-year-old woman who shows up on election day to work the poll. But you don't have, in most wards, that kind of old organization that you really relied on.
So it's not that important to declare yourself with just one party, and especially if you're a suburbanite; they're much more likely to be swing voters and certainly more likely to want to be - declare themselves to be independent of any particular party.
CONAN: For those who don't remember, yes, for jobs, for a turkey at Christmas, for a bucket of coal in the wintertime, real services, real things that meant things to real people.
PAGE: Everything from birth to where your grandmother would be put into a nursing home, all these things you would turn to the organization, quote-unquote, to help you with.
CONAN: No longer a factor, so as the number of independents increases, it seems that then - I was fascinated by the research that suggested that, in fact, independents do not decide - you'd think they would still be the swing voters, but they don't decide close elections.
PAGE: Yeah, this really surprised me. You know, there is a professor Alan Aramowitz of Emory University, who has been studying this using voting statistics, and he found that the - well, as he put it, in all three of the presidential elections since 1972 that were decided by a margin of less than five points, that the candidate backed by the independents lost.
This was - this surprised me. You know, he's citing here Jimmy Carter in '76, Gerald Ford - sorry, Gerald Ford beat - excuse me, Gerald Ford won the independent vote but lost the election. Put it that way, OK.
Most independents voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but Al Gore got the overall popular vote. As you recall, he got the popular vote but not the state vote.
CONAN: Yeah, but that's fudging your statistics a little bit. The guy who got the independent vote got the big prize.
PAGE: Yeah, but still, though, most of the - the one backed by the independent voters, though, did not get the majority of the popular vote. And in 2004, John Kerry, most independents voted for John Kerry, but he lost the overall election.
What does that mean? What it means is that Karl Rove and others, who have often advocated firing up the base rather than reaching out for independents, they've got a point. In some elections, that works. If you fire up your base, get your vote out, it can be big enough that it will overwhelm the opposition and the independents, because independents also tend to have the least turnout, and they also tend to be the least committed, not just to a party but also to - well, less engaged with the whole campaign.
CONAN: Interesting, on a day that the chief of staff leaves at the White House, a man seen as a conciliatory figure, wanted to reach out and appeal to that middle, as we were just talking a moment before the show, not a wartime consigliore.
PAGE: This is a time, yeah, where people are really looking closely at how important is it to reach out for independents or how important to fire up your base.
CONAN: Let's get another voice into the conversation. Academics, as we just heard, suggest the swing voter hardly exists. We would like to hear from a real political professional. Daron Shaw was a campaign strategist for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, also spent some time observing the Perry campaign last fall. Daron Shaw, nice to have you with us today.
DARON SHAW: Very nice to be here.
CONAN: Daron Shaw is at the studios of member station KUT in Austin. So does that - is that swing voter mythological? Is it something that is worth appealing for, or, as Clarence just suggested, is a more productive tactic to fire up your base and get those who are going to vote for you to turn out?
SHAW: Well, I think the thing that Clarence pointed out that's worth reiterating is that the distinguishing characteristic of independent voters is they're not that interested, they're not that involved, they're not that engaged with politics. So if you're a political professional and you're dealing with finite resources, and you have to make decisions about where you're going to invest dollars, and where you're going to invest manpower, you know, the idea of reaching out to independents, who may or may not show up, and if they do show up may or may not vote for you, can give you pause.
So you know, it's interesting that there's been this movement in the last two or three election cycles, and as Clarence correctly pointed out, I think Karl Rove is kind of given credit for this, although I don't know if he's, you know, the architect or godfather of it; a lot of people who have moved in this direction.
But the idea of sinking your resources into mobilization, which primarily targets, you know, sort of identifiable partisans and appeals to them, that that's become kind of a staple and maybe even the dominant perspective. And I find it kind of interesting that word out of the White House - and you have to read all these things with a dose of caution - but suggests that they're kind of moving in that direction. That's sort of what their thinking is. And I just find that fascinating.
CONAN: We've seen that in the speech at Osawatomie and various other aspects. So it does look like that's the case and has interesting implications if that is true for the candidate in the Republican primary scene as the most likely to appeal to moderates.
SHAW: Well, yeah, and I - you know, this is not something that I was overjoyed to find out, Neal, because, you know, I like the idea of crossing over, the idea of appealing to moderate of both parties, trying to reach some happy medium in between. I think polls certainly indicate that most American voters think that's a good idea, at least theoretically.
But insofar as how they vote, there's a lot of evidence that would indicate that trying to fire up the base, whether you're on the right or the left, can work(ph) . A big question for the Republicans right now is whether, in this series of debates that the candidates have been having, have they moved so far to the right that they've just left that much more room for Barack Obama to operate in seeking his re-election? We'll see.
CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners in on the conversation. If you're registered as an independent, call and tell us why, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Jack's on the line calling from Chester in South Carolina.
JACK: Good afternoon, thank you for taking my call.
JACK: I've registered - I've always been a registered independent. I don't think that independents hold much sway here in South Carolina, and I usually split my ticket in, you know, about every election that I cast a vote in.
CONAN: And do they have open primaries in South Carolina? We'll know this as a fact in a couple of weeks, but do you know that?
JACK: No, sir, you need to be affiliated with one party or the other to vote in the primary.
CONAN: And when you say you split your ticket, you might vote Republican for Congress and Democratic for governor, something like that?
JACK: Yes, sir, exactly.
CONAN: All right, Jack, so that's why you're registered - and do you think you have more - do you feel like politicians there are working for your vote?
JACK: I think they probably target their base more than anything else. You know, the reason why I'm not affiliated is because I do - I vote for who I feel like is going to represent us best, and so that usually leads me to split my vote.
CONAN: Jack, thanks very much for the call, and have a good time. You're going to be seeing some interesting advertising in the next couple of weeks. Daron Shaw, that closed primary system, obviously it's an open primary tomorrow in New Hampshire, independents can vote for Republicans or Democrats, closed primary, that changes things too.
SHAW: Yeah, the distinction that we raise in political science is between an open primary, in which case there usually is no party registration - that is to say you register as a voter but not as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.
Texas has a system like this, and that means that when election day rolls around, primary election day, you get to choose. You can either vote in the Democratic or the Republican primary. New Hampshire technically has what we call a semi-open or a semi-closed system. That is to say, out-partisans cannot participate.
So if you're registered Democrat, you can't vote in the Republican, and vice versa, but registered Republicans and – now, we're calling them independents but technically they're actually DTS-ers, decline to state, people who simply don't identify with one of the political parties - they are allowed to choose whichever primary they want to vote in.
And then a closed primary means that only registered partisans are allowed to participate. And you know, the research shows - I think this is kind of interesting - that there aren't the significant effects you might assume associated with open versus closed versus semi-open.
That is to say, you might assume that a closed primary process would produce more extreme ideological candidates, and we don't have a lot of evidence that that's the case, which I think always kind of catches everybody else by surprise.
CONAN: Do closed primaries lead to larger percentages of registered voters being registered in one party or the other?
SHAW: There's some evidence of that. But the difficulty is the states change the rules so frequently. In the South...
CONAN: They do.
SHAW: Yeah, in the South we've traditionally had - Texas and other places - open primaries dating back to days of Jim Crowe. You know, if you didn't get a chance to vote in the Democratic primary, you had no say in the election process whatsoever. So it's sort of a vestige like - of those days.
CONAN: We'll talk more about that. So there are local and regional differences as well. Stay with us. We're talking about the role of independent voters in primaries and general elections. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The polls open early tomorrow morning in New Hampshire, where voters are expected to grant Mitt Romney another win. Part of the reason he's expected to do well is his strength among independent voters in the Granite State.
Undeclared voters make up 41 percent of the electorate. A recent University of New Hampshire poll found many of those independent voters favor the former Massachusetts governor. They might still deliver a surprise tomorrow.
So tell us, if you're a registered independent in New Hampshire or elsewhere, why? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Here in Studio 3A, Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Clarence Page. Daron Shaw is with us from member station KUT in Austin. He was a campaign strategist for George W. Bush in 2000, 2004. And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Tim(ph) is on the line from Reno.
TIM: Hi, nice to be on your show.
CONAN: Nice to have you.
TIM: Yeah, look, I discussed it with your screener, and I guess my position is just that both parties are bought and paid for and are fully owned. And the candidates, even if they come into office with good ideals, end up getting paid for and corrupted. So that's basically the reason why I'm an independent.
CONAN: It sounds like election days, you go bowling.
TIM: No, you know, I'm still a very passionate citizen. I'm a very patriotic person, and I care about our country, and while I do think it's going in the wrong direction, I don't think it's beyond hope, and I do vote for the people that I think are the best candidates. And I try to consider everyone from both sides.
But I think the corporate control of our political system is destroying our democracy, and I think that is - if there's any issue that matters, that single issue is the one issue that matters most to me.
CONAN: OK, did you vote Democratic last time, Republican last time? Will you again?
TIM: Yeah, I was telling your screener, I was a - I did vote for Obama, and I really believed in him, and I really thought it was a pivotal moment in our history, and it feels like all that energy has been squandered.
Both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats and the presidency, and not a single conviction in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It's wholeheartedly disappointing. I may vote for him again by default, but I was telling your screener if Huntsman got through, and I don't believe he could, I don't believe a moderate can win the Republican nomination, but if he got through, I would have to take a very hard look at him. I really like a lot of the things he says.
And I believe he's a man of character. I just don't think he's going to get nominated by the Republicans.
CONAN: I think most Republicans think you're right. Tim, thanks very much for the call.
TIM: Thank you.
CONAN: And it's interesting, Daron Shaw, if you're looking at what that caller just said, one of the things you might look at is turnout. It was interesting, for example, going back to what happened in Iowa, the Republican turnout just a skosh higher than it was four years ago, when there was considerable more energy on the Democratic side, and most people said wait a minute, that extra energy in the Republican Party this year largely due to the effect of Ron Paul, who did very well, finishing in third place, and is expected to do again pretty well and finish second or third in New Hampshire tomorrow.
That - if you're talking about the importance of getting your base out, the turnout in these primaries, that might be the number you ought to look at.
SHAW: Yeah, I think there's some truth to that. I'm a little hesitant to make comparisons on the Republican side 2008 to 2012 just because, you know, it's interesting, the Republicans had so much energy, and there was so much dynamism on the right leading up to the 2010 elections, and I do think that's ebbed a little bit.
But the polling numbers we're seeing show that Republican voters are more engaged, more interested, more involved now than the Democrats and actually by a fairly wide margin. The question in this election cycle - and you can glean some evidence from the primaries - but the question is whether the Democrats get engaged, get interested and sort of match the Republican enthusiasm, or maybe exceed it, as they certainly did in 2008, whether that occurs over the next few months, right.
The Democrats don't have a contest going on right now. So some of this difference is sort of natural. But I wonder. I wonder where the enthusiasm is this time around. In 2008, it was with the Democrats. In 2010, it was with the Republicans, but as this caller just suggested, there are a lot of people out there who are like, well, we tried the Republicans, and we were disappointed, we tried the Democrats and were disappointed, and, you know, what's left?
CONAN: Where do we go? This an email, Andrea(ph) in Berkeley: I still count myself a Democrat but registered as an independent after the Bush-Gore vote-counting debacle. I felt let down by the Democratic Party. For the sake of getting on with things, for the sake of the country, they failed to uphold the idea of democratic society.
I have been disillusioned by their ability to counteract the Republicans. I felt that Nancy Pelosi, upon the election of Barack Obama, made the comment he shouldn't expect an easy ride with complete support, or something to that effect, I cannot imagine any Republican in Congress making any comment to that effect if a Republican president was elected.
A lot of disillusioned Democrats out there, Clarence.
PAGE: Yeah, and that's not news. And you could see it in news reports. You can see if you walk down your block, probably, you know, and talk to people who voted for Obama four years ago. You'll hear people who say they're disappointed, or they will criticize this or that.
At the same time, Barack Obama's approval numbers have been going back up in recent weeks as he has gone out on the stump and tried to fire up the base with more of a populist approach and more recently in the confirmation fights over Cordray, the bank, consumer protection advocate.
These kind of fights tend to work well for him now in his approvals, but I think you're not going to see a lot of action, firing up Democrats, for a few more months because at the present time, like President Obama said when Jay Leno asked him about the - whether he was following the Republican debates, he said I'm going to wait and see who gets voted off the island.
Right now, all the attention is on the Republicans. So you're not hearing a lot coming from the Democratic side except with what they call, you know, truth squads, just talking about - giving their spin on the issues that arise.
But right now, the best news for Obama is the jobless figures improved a fraction here in this latest report. He's hoping (unintelligible) the economy will continue like that. And that'll make a difference as far as a lot of attitudes people have who are feeling disappointed.
CONAN: Email from Kate(ph) in Portland: I changed from Democrat to non-affiliated voter because I did not want to give my head count to either party. I would like the two-party system to fail because I think it is a big part of our problem. And Clarence, every election cycle, we hear this over and over: Why is there not a centrist third party? Why is there the two-party system that freezes everybody out so often?
Daron Shaw can tell us in a moment why all the election laws are written to make it almost impossible to mount a third-party, credible third-party threat in many states, but...
PAGE: You took my answer number one, but there's more.
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CONAN: Go ahead.
PAGE: I was going to say number one is because the two existing parties have rigged the structure to make it hard for a third party to get rolling. But at the same time, though, you find that - well, look at Ross Perot. He did the best of anybody since Teddy Roosevelt, and he did it by having the right kind of message at the right kind of time.
I think, frankly, this coming year is the best we've seen in memory for launching a third party. I'm not saying it's necessarily going to have a shot at winning, but you hear a lot of people, like a couple of callers we've had here, saying they're fed up with both parties, they want to see somebody like Ron Paul.
I had one of my readers emailed me yesterday suggesting a Ron Paul-Dennis Kucinich ticket.
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PAGE: How about that, you know, a couple of feisty independents, one Republican, one Democrat. You hear a lot of people saying they want this.
But quite seriously, I think that for the same reason that you are hearing a lot about these independent voters who weren't really independent, these folks who are fed up with both parties tend for whatever reasons not to be as engaged, probably the most likely not to show up at the polls if they really feel fed up right to the end.
And so, you know, that's one big reason why third parties don't get started because it takes committed people to want to start one and keep it going.
CONAN: Well, Daron Shaw, a committed person, Donald Trump says after his TV program ends in the spring, he might consider it. A lot of people don't take him seriously because you have to be the combination of a Talmudic scholar and particle physicist specialist to be able to figure out all of the machinations you need to get on the ballot in places like New York.
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SHAW: Yeah, well, it obviously - the Virginia rules obviously eluded, you know, the majority of the Republican field. So this is clearly a pretty complex endeavor, and that's within the party. You know, I had a professor one time when I was doing grad work who referred to parties as they're very much like public utilities, which is they're sort of quasi-public operations.
They're regulated very much by the states. You know, for instance, New Hampshire will count - the state of New Hampshire will count the votes in the Republican and Democratic primaries tomorrow, which is really kind of fascinating when you think about it, right?
I mean, why should, you know, the state machinery, the state governmental machinery be responsible for counting what's essentially a party contest? But the parties have bargained some of those freedoms that you get for kind of running their own elections and having rules as they see fit in exchange for the protection of the state, the state legislatures and the state statutory processes, to make it very difficult for competitors to enter the political market. And you see that in a state like Texas, where if you want to run as an independent candidate, you have to get, I believe, it's 50,000 signatures of registered voters who had not voted in the primaries, which I guess is a demonstration that this is now some sort of sore loser provision or something like that. But those sorts of laws existed across the board.
Actually, one of the most interesting consequences of Perot's candidacy - and to a lesser extent John Anderson in 1980 - is that they did manage to chip away at some of those laws. But I would also raise kind of a, you know, geeky, academic distinction here. I think it's very possible to see an independent candidacy for the president this time. That's not a third party...
SHAW: ...you know? And I think that's an important distinction. You know, a third party is a, you know, Ross Perot or Donald Trump spends their billions of dollars financing 100 House candidates in districts across the country. And that's just something...
CONAN: It's got to be 435, if he hopes to get anything done.
SHAW: I think they want - I agree, except if you've got 100 in the right places, you can have a lot of influence, right?
CONAN: You can have a lot of influence, but you wouldn't have a majority.
SHAW: No, but you could make the majority, and I think that's what you see in European countries, right? You know, you want to be the coalition partner.
CONAN: Ah, the kingmaker.
SHAW: Exactly. And so that's why I say, you know, the heck, you might only need 40. But that's the kind of thing that we, you know, we did use to see not that sort of strategic kind of maneuvering, but that's the way parties used to be. Third-party movements, historically, in the 19th century, were mostly localized and kind of focused on congressional races and kind of representation of movements. And with Teddy Roosevelt and sort of ever since then, they've largely been - you know, with a few exceptions - essentially kind of personal vanity vehicles, you know, the expressions of people who had a political following or a lot of money and want to make a political point.
I think we're likely to see that again. Certainly, Trump is an example of that. But it would be interesting to see if you could get these diverse sets of interests that are just fed up with the political parties. If you could unite them, even if it was just on the basis of grievance, you know, opposition to the two existing parties, you might be able to do some damage. But I agree with all the points that have been made about how difficult it is to do that mechanically.
CONAN: Daron Shaw, professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin, with us from KUT. Clarence Page is here with us in Studio 3A. He's a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. Let's go to Stephanie. Stephanie with us from Elko in Nevada.
CONAN: Hi, Stephanie.
STEPHANIE: I've been a registered independent for almost 30 years, my entire voting career. And my husband is now registered independent also. We're very interested in politics. I'm a poli sci major, and we follow elections and never miss one. And we actually go stand in line. We don't vote by mail. But we've never felt like we found a home with either party that, you know, they just - for the most part, didn't define us more than they did define us, so we keep all of our options open, and we get fewer phone calls that way also.
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CONAN: That is an advantage I haven't thought about. Do you mostly vote one party or another?
STEPHANIE: It really depends. We were both from western South Dakota, and we've been 15 years in conservative northeastern Nevada, (unintelligible) local and regional elections. Usually, a Republican is about your only choice, so we tend to vote Republican in those elections, and we tend to vote our conscience in everything else. I'm a gateway issue voter. I'm rabidly pro-choice, so if you're not pro-choice, quit talking to me. My husband is a little more reasonable.
CONAN: Stephanie, thanks very much. Interesting changes, as you watch the state of Nevada become more and more purple. Your previous iteration - parts of your life, it was reliably Republican, no longer the case.
STEPHANIE: Well, out here, it's still solidly Republican. We are completely different than we know in Vegas.
CONAN: Oh, I get that, no. But statewide...
STEPHANIE: Scarily so.
CONAN: ...is a little different.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And that, Clarence, raises the issue of if you're a Democrat in Oklahoma, if you're a Republican in California, well, maybe some local places, yeah. But pretty much, if you wanted to have an influence on the election, you'd want to register as the party you don't believe in.
PAGE: Well, that's certainly true for, I mean, Chicago has been doing that for years. If you don't register as a Democrat, then you don't have very many choices on primary election day, and you wouldn't...
SHAW: You don't get your trashed picked up either.
PAGE: Well, thank you, you know, I mean, that does - both all machine enforcements have weakened considerably, thankfully in recent decades. But still, one thing we got to remember though, I'm more intrigued by her saying that she's rapidly pro-choice. I cannot imagine any Republican on a general election ballot in recent years that she could vote for who would not break that little litmus test of hers. And I think that's one big reason why you're seeing more people registering independent. I heard one - I think it's - I heard one gentleman from New Hampshire on NPR interviewed, saying he call himself a Nelson Rockefeller Republican...
PAGE: ...so he's registered as an independent up there because, you know, there are no Nelson Rockefeller Republicans anymore. That's kind of, what, extinct species just about. Moderation is not a virtue anymore in the Republican Party.
CONAN: Except to some precincts of Maine perhaps. Daron Shaw, I wanted to ask you, how do you think it might change things, the California system, the primary is now going to be the top two vote getters will go onto a general election. If they're both Republicans or if they're both Democrats - it doesn't matter. Whoever emerges with the top two votes - two top vote getters in an open primary will go onto the general election. Could that change things?
SHAW: I think it can change things quite a bit. I'll - this is one instance - this one particular arrangement is one instance in which I will actually proselytize to my class. And we in political science, especially in American politics, tend to be very pro-party. Now, a caveat - not necessarily these two parties, but we tend to...
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CONAN: We like the Whigs a lot, yeah.
SHAW: Well, we like the notion that parties organize competition, that they enhance accountability, that they - in a generic sense, in a theoretical sense, parties really do promote democratic functioning.
And so when you see something like the blanket of the jungle primaries in which, essentially, they throw all the candidates in and the top two vote-getters go. One part of me sort of wonders why in God's name the parties would sign off an arrangement like this? I mean, maybe the dominant party would have an incentive to do it because they think they might get the top two spots.
But, you know, why the Republicans, for instance, would go along with something like this in California is beyond me. Now, of course, the justification is, is that it might produce more moderate politics, more appealing politics, that you might see increased turnout in the primaries, greater interest, which I get.
On the other hand, you know, if I'm the Republicans or Democrats, what do I care to rig a system that produced moderate candidates? You know, primaries are supposed to produce representative candidates within the context of the primary electorate. So I'm - I think it will have effect. I'm at a loss to understand why the parties would go along with these sorts of procedures, though.
CONAN: Daron Shaw of the University of Texas at Austin. Clarence Page, a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. We thank you both for your time.
SHAW: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Coming up: The FAA grounded a flock of whooping cranes. We'll find out why. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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