Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GO WEST, YOUNG MAN....In an unforgivable act of Golden State treason, Ezra Klein comes out against an earlier primary date for California:

There's no way, within the context of the early-primary rush, for Democrats to seriously, thoughtfully, or comprehensively campaign within it. All they can do is spend money and rely on name recognition making it a competition between the famed and the funded. And that doesn't mean we'll just have a primary entrenching the likeliest outcomes: It means we're going to ensure those outcomes. Any minor candidate seeking to remain even marginally competitive will exhaust their coffers in the first ad run through the Los Angeles media market.

He's got a point, of course. On the other hand, consider this: there's really no such thing as a dark horse candidate any more. Modern campaigns begin a minimum of a year before the first primary, and by the time California (or any other state) rolls around anyone who hasn't been able to raise $30-40 million is plainly not someone who's competitive. Maybe it would be better to figure that out earlier than later?

Like it or not, modern presidential campaigns are all about raising money and using the media, and I suspect we're better off setting up a system that's most likely to choose a candidate who can win a modern election. That means someone who's demonstrated the ability to win in a big, impersonal state like California, not someone who's demonstrated the ability to hold the most coffee klatsches in a single day.

Plus, maybe it would reduce the number of idiotic vanity candidates clogging up the early debates. Or am I just dreaming?

UPDATE: Atrios points out that an early big state primary also forces candidates to build big volunteer organizations, and it would be nice to find out who's good at that.

I should add that all joking about California aside, I'd be fine with having any largish state early on. It doesn't have to be the very largest. Maybe Michigan or New Jersey or Massachusetts or something like that.

Kevin Drum 11:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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I like the "idiotic vanity candidates" they are usually the only ones who can give a real unrehearsed or at the very least entertaining answer. And, btw, they are ALL vanity cndidates;>

Posted by: Martin on January 25, 2007 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

If California is moved up, 7 of the 8 Democratic candidates may as well drop out. Hillary has all the early money. She will use it to win in a walk.

Too bad for the Democrats if she stumbles.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 25, 2007 at 11:45 AM | PERMALINK

The problem is less with the primary calendar and much more with the celebrity culture reporting. We've all noticed the "high school election" notes coming out of the reporting, and I don't know how you combat that.

Clinton and Obama are the front-runners. Not because people think they're the best candidates, necessarily, but because they're electable. And they're popular. They're popular because people have heard of them. People have heard of them because they get magazine covers and articles galore. And they get magazine covers and articles galore because they're the front-runners.

If Mike Huckabee, or Wesley Clark, were to get half the free publicity and face time that Clinton and Obama were getting, they'd be higher in the polls. Imagine a Newsweek glossy cover story on Edwards right now ("Is This The Man To Recover From The Bush Era?") or a major sit-down with Oprah for somebody like Biden (I know, I'm laughing as well).

What kills me is that these early popularity-and-publicity-driven polls determine who gets to be a "serious candidate" and it's all name recognition. How to you convince the establishment press to give *more* coverage to the candidates who aren't well known, and *less* to the ones that we've already heard of?

Posted by: zmulls on January 25, 2007 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

National primary. And national election (i.e. popular vote).

Posted by: Ben V-L on January 25, 2007 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK
There's no way, within the context of the early-primary rush, for Democrats to seriously, thoughtfully, or comprehensively campaign within it.

Okay, Ezra convinced me. California shouldn't move its primary to shortly after the other early primaries, it should move it well-before them.

California should adopt a law that its primary must be scheduled at least 30 days before any state with a population smaller than California's at the last census.

Avoid irrelevancy, avoid the "early primary rush".

Posted by: cmdicely on January 25, 2007 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

Your idiotic vanity candidate is my principled longshot, nobly refusing to surrender as long as s/he is the only candidate talking about Issue X, which is the most important of our time.

Posted by: Jim on January 25, 2007 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

Plus, maybe it would reduce the number of idiotic vanity candidates clogging up the early debates. Or am I just dreaming?


Exactly! Those were my first thoughts. The problem with the last democratic primaries were there were two many candidates, meaning the more relevant ones lost valuable face time during debates.

Posted by: mitch on January 25, 2007 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

I used to live in California, and I remember how utterly pointless the presidential primaries would be, so it would be very nice to have them moved up to a point where they still mean something.

As for darkhorse candidates, apart from Jimmy Carter and maybe Barry Goldwater, when has a candidate won his party's nomination who wasn't the heavy establishment candidate? (You might throw Dukakis in there, but he probably wouldn't have been nominated if Gary Hart hadn't imploded). So, I really don't see how moving the primaries up would hurt dark horse candidates anymore than they're hurt already.

The only drawback I see to moving California's primary up is all of the other states will probably do the same thing which means the nominating process could pretty much be over by March. If it's like the last couple of elections in which the campaigning pretty much stopped between the end of the primary season and the conventions, this could create a serious dead zone in the presidential season. Now, of course, whether this is a bad thing or not may be another topic for discussion...

Posted by: Guscat on January 25, 2007 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

"Plus, maybe it would reduce the number of idiotic vanity candidates clogging up the early debates."
Your logic doesn't follow. You have to have debates before the thing is decided- what's the point of having one person on stage for a debate? That means debates will have to be in January, before any voting has happened, which means everyone will still be in it and there will still be all the "vanity" candidates.

Posted by: SP on January 25, 2007 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

It's a deliberate device to give Hillary a boost. "Name recognition" is what Hillary is about, and accounts for most of her success in polls.

With New York and California "in the bag," she's going to be hard to beat.

Posted by: carrie on January 25, 2007 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

Would it knock out Al Sharpton? It was really strange seeing semi-responsible Democrats debate with the black version of Robert Byrd. Why do democrats let a racist be a major candidate?

Posted by: American Hawk on January 25, 2007 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

Breaking News: Execrable Ezra Supports Status Quo. Film at 11.

Posted by: charlie don't surf on January 25, 2007 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK


AMERICAN HAWK: Why do democrats let a racist be a major candidate?

They let you post on this site. Tolerance, ya think?


Posted by: jayarbee on January 25, 2007 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

It's a deliberate device to give Hillary a boost. "Name recognition" is what Hillary is about, and accounts for most of her success in polls. With New York and California "in the bag," she's going to be hard to beat.

Which is precisely and admittedly why the speaker of the IL House wants to move up the IL primary -- to help out our favorite son.

This ridiculous arms race has got to stop.

Posted by: Disputo on January 25, 2007 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

National primary. And national election (i.e. popular vote).

No on the former. What we need is a nationally controlled rotating schedule of primaries.

Posted by: Disputo on January 25, 2007 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK

Being from Iowa, I'm sure I'm biased, but I did live in California for a few years, so maybe I'm not completely without feeling for the Golden State.

Early primaries and/or caucuses in small states puts much less emphasis on money and more on ideas and campaigning -- even the little guys with little money have a chance in Iowa because they can easily get out and meet the people.

Isn't that something we all want? To favor a system that can give voice to the candidate without the big purse?

Otherwise, we might just as well start calling ourselves liberal Republicans.

Posted by: BA on January 25, 2007 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

The "idiotic vanity candidates" are the only ones who can say What Cannot Be Said(tm) in the debates and elsewhere.

In any case, the "big states first" theory would only last until a grassroots groups succeeded in getting their candidate to place first in a big state through hard work, networking etc (say the Deaniacs had invaded CA rather than IA). Then the game would be changed again so that the big-money players will still be able to select _their_ preferred candidate (clearly Hillary in this round).

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on January 25, 2007 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

Wouldn't John Dean and John Kerry have been considered idiotic vanity candidates last time?

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 25, 2007 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote: "maybe it would reduce the number of idiotic vanity candidates clogging up the early debates."

Who would you be referring to as "idiotic vanity candidates"? I don't recall a single "idiotic vanity candidate" in the 2004 Democratic primary campaign.

Perhaps you mean Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who campaigned against the Iraq war and has proved to be absolutely 100 percent correct in everything he said at that time?

Posted by: SecularAnimist on January 25, 2007 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

I'd go Kevin one better: Since the candidate in the general election is almost always decided before the polls close in CA, I suggest that the CA lege pass a law requiring that the sun rise in the west.

Posted by: Disputo on January 25, 2007 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

maybe it would reduce the number of idiotic vanity candidates clogging up the early debates

Not as long as idiotic vanity candidates have a lot of money. Remember Messrs. Huffington and Chechi?

Posted by: Shelby on January 25, 2007 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote in part: Modern campaigns begin a minimum of a year before the first primary, and by the time California (or any other state) rolls around anyone who hasn't been able to raise $30-40 million is plainly not someone who's competitive.

In a radio interview this morning, Sen. Feinstein recounted how in her most recent reelection campaign (in which she had no credible opponent), she spent $30 million on a single TV commercial. Even candidates who can raise that kind of money will quickly see that it won't go very far in California.

Posted by: Jim Strain on January 25, 2007 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

No wonder so many Presidential candidates are starting to run and raise money now, given how all the states are moving up their primaries.

The fund-raising power of the netroots will be a bigger factor than ever this time around, and to those who already have a horse in the race the best thing you can do for them is send them money early and often.

Posted by: David W. on January 25, 2007 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

Candidates such as McGovern, Carter, and Clinton would never survive the proposed early, large-state primaries. Speaking as an Iowan, leave well enough alone.

Posted by: Peter Hansen on January 25, 2007 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Candidates such as McGovern, Carter, and Clinton would never survive the proposed early, large-state primaries. Speaking as an Iowan, leave well enough alone.

So... a failed president, a perjurer who got impeached, and a total loser are the strengths of the current system?

Posted by: American Hawk on January 25, 2007 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

I pooped in my pants just now.

Posted by: American Hawk on January 25, 2007 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

"So... a failed president, a perjurer who got impeached, and a total loser are the strengths of the current system?"

I can certainly see why candidates who displayed authentic physical and moral courage, true piety, and competence would be repugnant to a GWB supporter like AH . . .

Posted by: rea on January 25, 2007 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Has anybody thought about the implications of the eternal or permanent campaign?

Here we are nearly two years away from the next Presidential election. For the first time in over a decade the Democrats have a chance to push their domestic agenda. There are two or three major issues where the congressional Democrats, cross over Republicans and the White House might reasonably be expected to enact needed legislation. The President really needs to reach some solutions on those major issues to have any "legacy" at all. Unfortunately, I don't think many of the legion of senators running for President are going to be spending much time moving those major issues where compromise is possible.

It seems to me, the 2008 campaign started in early 2005. The candidates are all out raising money and putting groups together. Many have announced at least exploratory committees. The front runners in the Democratic party are forging ahead. The putative front runner in the Republican party for the last few months is tanking. Others are shoving each other for time on the stage.

The congress has several important but routine responsibilities. One of them is to pass a budget. That wasn't done last year because the Republicans ran out of time before the 2006 midterm and when things went badly, the Republican leadership showed just how responsible they were. They went home and sulked. I am not sure the Democrats are going to even enact a budget for this year.

In the world of the eternal campaign just how the hell does our government get anything done?

Now we are moving primaries up to the end of 2007 or very early in 2008. Peachy. Entire nation's could rise and fall in the time it takes for us to run one of these eternal or permanent campaigns. I guess I shouldn't worry, nobody suffers but rank and file Americans who want their government to actually accomplish something.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 25, 2007 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

The whole process is too damned long. NO ONE before Feb 2. Calif in March or maybe April.

A better idea is rotating regional primaries, or rotating groups of large/small,rural/urban, racial mix etc, and the group with the highest voting percentage at the prtevious election goes first.

Posted by: Mimikatz on January 25, 2007 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

Damn it, this "MY state first, screw the rest" stuff has to stop.

If you set a threshold of "you have to have $50M in the bank by Jan 1, or you'll lose in CA and lose the nomination, so don't bother", then WHY bother with primaries at all? Just give the nomination to the candidate with the biggest bank balance on Jan 1 and be done with it.

But if the idea is that primaries make candidates hone their campaign, their ideas and their messages, then it should stay competitive as long as possible. That will also maximize the (free) news coverage, which is also a plus.

So here's my contribution: state governments get to set the primary dates. But it's the party that decides HOW MANY DELEGATES a state gets. So make a sliding scale: each state has a 'nominal' number of delegates, based on population. And with that number, is a nominal primary date. More delegates = later primary.

States that move their primary to earlier in the year get their delegate count REDUCED to match the number appropriate for that date.

So if CA wants to have a primary the same day as NH, fine. They'll also get the same number of delegates as NH. If they want to go earlier than NH, fine, I hope their (one) delegate isn't too lonely.

Posted by: Grumpy Physicist on January 25, 2007 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

That means someone who's demonstrated the ability to win in a big, impersonal state like California,

Both Gore and Kerry won California and New York but all it got them was close.

If you want to change the primaries, start working now on 2016. Moving things around now ends up too partisan and DOA.

Posted by: tomeck on January 25, 2007 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

So... a failed president, a perjurer who got impeached, and a total loser are the strengths of the current system?

I presume you're talking about GHW Bush, Nixon and GW Bush?

Posted by: tomeck on January 25, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

Tomeck, Nixon was never impeached, GW Bush has liberated 50 million people, and George H. W Bush played a key role in defeating the USSR.

But thanks for playing.

Posted by: American Hawk on January 25, 2007 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Drum: Or am I just dreaming?

I'd say hallucinating, as in imagining that California is the center of the universe.

..modern presidential campaigns are all about raising money and using the media..

So, uh, that should be institutionalized?

Primary seasons and campaigns should be about leadership, competency, and ideas. A presidential campaign that is 'all about raising money and using the media' is a presidency that is only about raising money and using the media.

Just like the current administration, Kev.

Posted by: grape_crush on January 25, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, Kevin, but this is just a way for the party bosses to grease the process for Hillary. Screw 'em.

My proposed process: Divide the country into four areas: Northeast, South, Midwest and West. The first three areas would have 12 states, the West 14 (including Alaska and Hawaii). The primary/caucus season would be a 12-week process: Two years before the next presidential election, a lottery of the states would be held, where one state from each region would be drawn for week one, another four for week two, and so on. (The two extra western states would take part in week #12.) No state that was in the first three weeks for one presidential election could be in the next three weeks' process for the following election. What could be fairer? (Of course, "fairness" is anathema to the party bosses for both the Dems and GOP.)

Posted by: Vincent on January 25, 2007 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Over on MyDD there is an article entitled Hillary Clinton's DLC Problem http://www.mydd.com/story/2007/1/23/1675/63190

Given the hostility to the dictates of the DLC axemplified by Vincent above, maybe progressives should start thinking about a third party candidate. Maybe we should at least talk about the divide between the beltway money elite and rank and file Democrats. When do we regular folk ever get a change candidate?

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 25, 2007 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

Why not have CA have an early Dem Caucus? It could be non-binding, or give some advantage to the winner in the actual Primary. Caucuses are much harder to buy so campaigning would help. Also, a big non-winning showing in a CA caucus could be helpful to a less well known candidate.

Posted by: crack on January 25, 2007 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

He's got a point, of course. On the other hand, consider this: there's really no such thing as a dark horse candidate any more. Modern campaigns begin a minimum of a year before the first primary, and by the time California (or any other state) rolls around anyone who hasn't been able to raise $30-40 million is plainly not someone who's competitive. Maybe it would be better to figure that out earlier than later?

If you believe that, then why not just call a National Primary day and have all 50 primaries on the same day? You could even set a spending cap up until that day if you want.

Posted by: Sam on January 25, 2007 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

Plus, maybe it would reduce the number of idiotic vanity candidates clogging up the early debates.

You mean candidates like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Howard Dean and John Edwards?

These were guys in a pack of Democratic challengers, all of whom (at the time) might have been described as "vanity candidates".

While one can take issue with any individual Dem candidate that rose to the front (Clinton, Dean, etc.), one must admit that the current system has -- on the whole -- served the Democratic Party well, and given us vitality and a constant source of fresh blood. This is part of the reason why the Democrats have so *many* options for 2008, where as the old Reagan-Bush-Dole stamp which has dominated the GOP for so long has left them struggling.

It ain't broke, so let's not fix it.

Posted by: K Ashford on January 25, 2007 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

When the leadership of this nation gets its head together and lets me run things, here is my presidential primary changes:

Divide the states into about 8-9 geographic groups. States in one geo group have their primary on the same date. Two weeks later the next, and two weeks later etc. Every general election year the order of the group primaries is rotated.

This would be more logical as regional issues would be more thoroughly sussed and more cost effective as candidate travel, man power, and communication expenses could achieve an economy of scale. By rotating the order each part the country will have a chance to be first.

And this will never happen, sigh.

Posted by: Keith G on January 25, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

How about we have the Florida and Ohio primaries first. I'm willing to believe that a candidate who runs well in those states might be an objective asset to his party. We can put Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and New Jersey next.

Posted by: Njorl on January 25, 2007 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

I don't understand how everyone can confuse the issue of running for President and being the President. They require two different skill sets. You don't get to do the latter without being very good at the former. The goal of the primaries should be about finding a winning candidate. Leadership and ideas might be by-products of that, but that's not the focus. It's about sharpening a campaign, adjusting to pitfalls, and ultimately getting in position to win the Presidency.

By the way, Iowa and NH have done a terrible disservice to Democrats in this processs.

Posted by: DoubleB on January 25, 2007 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

In lieu of national control over the primaries, I like the grumpy physicist's idea, but I'm afraid it's way too complicated for a system of gvmt that can't even handle indexing set monetary values to inflation.

Posted by: Disputo on January 25, 2007 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

Um, Arnold the Republican Governor is behind this calender move.
Do we really think that the guy who engineered a coup against the last Democratic governor has the Democrat's best interests at heart?

Posted by: Jim 7 on January 25, 2007 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

What kills me is that these early popularity-and-publicity-driven polls determine who gets to be a "serious candidate" and it's all name recognition.

Yes, but, how could any system possibly work differently? Ultimately, by the time it comes to actually vote in primaries, a candidate at least needs to have enough name recognition for the average voter to be comfortable voting for him. I mean, would you feel comfortable advancing toward the nuclear button the candidacy of someone you'd barely heard of?

If anything, our system makes it too easy for a relative unknown to capture the White House. You usually only get a crack at being the British Prime Minister after a decent number of years in Parliament, where you're skill at the art of governance is on display every day, and where your chances for advancement to high office will quickly be nullified by your colleagues if you prove inept. My guess is George W. Bush would never have made it to the White House if he'd had to spend a few years parrying back in forth on live televsion with Bill Clinton. Similarly, the Democrats most likely would have elected someone with greater chances for success in Washington in 1976 had they been forced to choose from among the ranks of their legislators. Our system gives the advantage of a wider talent pool, but at greater risk for failure.

Posted by: Jasper on January 25, 2007 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Wouldn't John Dean and John Kerry have been considered idiotic vanity candidates last time?

How did John Dean do in the primaries?

Posted by: Pug on January 25, 2007 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

Californian Dems should move the primary up and tell New Hampshire and Iowa to get over themselves. If the Democratic candidate does not win Callifornia then there is now way for them to win the presidency. Iowa and New Hampshire are not nearly that important. I prefer a primary system that rotates the first few primaries among a selection of states based on region or on their competitiveness/purpleness. I would't be opposed to the DNC giving the first primary to a state where they are making a major push to gain seats at the federal and state level. There are any number of reasons to break the monopoly of Iowa and New Hampshire and the sooner it is done the better.

Posted by: NH - The Crybaby state on January 25, 2007 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

THE DNC should mandate that the first Democratic primary take place in Hawaii during the 1st week in Janaury. Make this change and I pledge I will always volunteer on some candidates campaign

Posted by: Aloha on January 25, 2007 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Gore and Kerry didn't win on their coffee Klatch personality - they won because they had access to Buddist monks or wealthy dowagers. Since you think raising money is the best yardstick how do you explain McCain doing a lot better than Steve Forbes or Phil Graham or John Connolly on my side of the aisle, where money is not as disparaged by the nutroots to begin with.

Posted by: ex-minion on January 25, 2007 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

Why must elections be held on one day? What if the California primary election lasted a week?

Posted by: jimmy on January 25, 2007 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

.halfway measures.

Posted by: . on January 25, 2007 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

Tomeck, Nixon was never impeached, GW Bush has liberated 50 million people, and George H. W Bush played a key role in defeating the USSR.

AH

Nixon resigned rather than face certain impeachment that would have been supported by both side of the aisle, unlike the show trial the Republican Party gave Clinton.

Bush's daddy sat and watched the Soviet Union rot from within. Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel had a lot more to do with taking down the Soviet Union than Bush. And that's not to mention that Russian major and his tanks who sided with Putin when the Army tried to take control.

Afghanistan and Iraq don't look very "liberated" to me. Iraq has an occupying army, a civil war, and tens of thousands dead. Karzai's government controls little outside Kabul and the Taliban is making the threat of a comeback.

You've got to do better than that, chump.

Posted by: tomeck on January 25, 2007 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

New Jersey? Dear God, that would be one brutal, brutal dogfight. Doesn't New Jersey make 'bare-knuckle' politics look positively genteel?

Posted by: KL on January 25, 2007 at 5:34 PM | PERMALINK

Hillary will not do as well as you might think here in NY--she's not loved at all, and has done nothing for us as Senator.

We need to move either NY or CA up to the front--i've never been able to vote for my first choice in the primaries--they've been long gone by the time it's my turn (voting since 84).

Posted by: amberglow on January 25, 2007 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

This is off the top of the head.

Realizing, going in, that it is radical and that the devil is in the details of legality, nevertheless...

One way to mitigate the obvious downsides of an early primary in a state as populous and expensive as California (and don't think for a second that the mas mdia isn't slavering at the thought of the oceans of cash that would sccompany the primary) might be something along these lines:

Break out the state into discrete media covearge markets (not difficult, it is done for a variety of ratings and tracking already).

In each market, and also for each separate type of medium, cap charges in each different market for campaign-bought ads only at no more than the average charge of all similar media in that same market over, say, the past 6 months.

This amount would need to be calculated separately for TV, for radio, for newspapers, etc.

Outlets could charge less (market penetration cost/benefit is not to be dismissed), but not over the cap.

Non-campaign ads would still be able to be charged at whatever rates the market will bear.

Reaptinng for emphasis: this is a rough and assuredly off=the-cuff description, but perhaps not so fringe as to be completely untenable.

Posted by: voxd on January 25, 2007 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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