ONE AMERICAN voter in three thinks that he or she has figured out a way to beat the primary system: pick out a candidate who cannot win nomination, no matter how much you distrust or even detest him, and cast a protest vote for that "anti" candidate.
That is intended (1) to "send a message" to the most electable candidate of your party to move closer to your position, or (2) to abdicate the choice to party bosses at the convention, allowing the protester to profess shock at their selection of a safe &L establishmentarian.
Such system-beating is democracy in action, the politics of involvement, the voice of the people determining the choice of the people, all those good things.
But protest primary voting can be carried too far. Ultrasophisticated protest voters, using their ballots to send messages and to try cushion shots -- a vote for this is a vote for that -- may wind up outsmarting themselves.
Most Republicans who vote for Pat Buchanan, as well as most Democrats who vote for Jerry Brown, are getting into the message-sending habit. For that I'm-mad-as-hell crowd, voting has become less of a choice than a catharsis; the casting of a ballot is not so much a rational decision about available alternatives as an explosion of frustration.
In an election-industry state like New Hampshire, that's traditional -- both as a presidential waker-upper and an invitation the opposition ball. But when Connecticut's Democrats turned the Nutmeg State into the Nutcake State, and New York and California primary voters threaten to perpetuate the messageering, it's time for even a card-carrying iconoclast to examine the downside of protest voting.
It can get to be a self-defeating habit. Republicans unhappy with tTC the imperfect Bush started it by using the anti-everything Buchanan. Then, Democrats uncertain of Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas picked up the protest vogue by using the retreaded Brown. Now independents are getting in the anti-establishment game by flirting with the billionaire Ross Perot.
Protest-voting in primaries is building a protest constituency in the general election. It's in fashion to say "I voted no"; it's fun to go into a voting booth and let off steam. But this undermines American political stability without accomplishing the protest voter's aims.
In 1968, Alabama's George Wallace saw "not a dime's worth of difference" between Democrats and Republicans and led a third-party movement of racists and populists to "send them a message."
This appealed to many union workers, ordinarily sure Democratic voters, and withheld enough support from Hubert Humphrey to let Richard Nixon squeak through. The result of the 13 percent vote for Wallace reduced organized labor's political clout for a generation, surely not the goal of the protesting union voter.
That's happening again. The legion of grumpies whose resentments are fanned by Buchanan and Brown are getting into the habit of protest voting. They expect to lose; indeed, most would be dismayed if their vehicle won. They are indulging their petulance at not being presented with the perfect candidate.
Most expect to come home to their parties in November. But once in the habit of wasting their vote in a primary, many will be inclined to waste it again in a general election -- especially when a rich techno-nerd offers them a way to keep the protest party rolling.
The result of protest voting may be contrary to what the protester wants. The Republican protest may go from Buchanan in the spring to Perot in the fall and help Democrat Clinton win Texas. Enough of the Democrat Brown protest may go to Perot to help Republican Bush take New York.
Protest voters are party to their own manipulation. The opportunist Jerry Brown is likely to try to take his band of aginners into the Perot fold in the fall; Pat Buchanan will pay lip service to Republicanism but is already recalling that Ronald Reagan was a party-switcher. This is leadership over the cliff.
Sometimes protest asks too much. At this stage, the wise protester eschews all cushion-shot games, and chooses the person on the ballot he or she would like to see as president. Voters ought to remember: Nobody's perfect. The candidate you vote for now is the one you should be prepared to live with for the next four years.
William Safire writes a column for the New York Times.