Changing how we choose

National | Weighing the pros and cons of various proposals to change the way America picks its presidents

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

Some wisdom shines forth in a quote from former presidential candidate Walter Mondale: "The only thing wrong with the smoke-filled room," he said in 1986, "was all the smoke." With a number of changes being proposed in the way Americans choose presidential party nominees, the simplicity of the smoke-filled room has its attractions. Why the long primary process? Why do the small states of New Hampshire and Iowa play such a disproportionate role in determining our November choices? Why the circus surrounding Super Tuesday? Reform ideas are as plentiful as pundits, and political scientists and party leaders scratch their collective heads to find a better way. Here's a rundown of the sorts of primary reform under consideration: Choose nominee in a cloud of smoke
Many argue that we should return to the days when political party leaders and national convention delegates played the major role in picking the party's nominee. This is how the system worked throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. That "smoke-filled room" saying comes from this tradition. PROS:

  • Maximum ability for parties to select their strongest candidate as judged by the people most involved in politics and government.
  • Provides the opportunity to fully investigate the character and qualifications of potential nominees in order to pick the strongest individual.
  • Better opportunity to combine party platform ideals with the nominee's own political philosophy.


  • Too little input from the electorate at large could lead to even greater voter apathy and alienation.
  • Party leaders and national convention delegates may not be representative of party identifiers and activists at the grass-roots level.

If it ain't broke ...
Others believe the current system, in which the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary play a huge role in winnowing down each party's presidential field, serves the nation well. PROS:

  • This system grew out of the "smoke-filled rooms" and is more open and, therefore, better.
  • Small states like Iowa and New Hampshire provide more opportunity for "retail" politics, allowing candidates without the big money to have a legitimate shot at winning.

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  • Iowa and New Hampshire are not at all representative of the nation. Therefore, their influence on the process makes no sense.
  • Media coverage of the "horse race" early on in the cycle makes it difficult for the public's voice to be heard. The primary calendar has been over-compressed as big states not wanting to be left out have early March primaries.

Regional primaries
Various regional primaries have been discussed. The GOP's "Delaware Plan" would have a regional system in which small states are grouped first with successive primaries that place progressively larger numbers of delegates on the table. It culminates with a California primary in June. Other proposals call for a rotating regional primary in which five or six regional state groupings hold primaries. The order of the regions' election days would rotate every four years. Both the Delaware Plan and a rotating regional scenario are up for discussion at this summer's Republican National Convention. PROS:

  • Provides a "system" with a rational framework. Organizes campaigning in seemingly sensible ways.
  • Over time, the influence of each part of the country is distributed evenly.


  • Large groupings of states make less well-financed candidates virtually unable to campaign. Even the small states in the "Delaware Plan" are dependent on big media markets (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc.) for their information and advertising.
  • State groupings could foster "regional" candidates-local celebrities, for example, who may get party nominations for reasons other than ideology or general electability.

The "Flag Day" election
Finally, there are proponents of a National Primary Day in which all 50 states would hold primaries or caucuses simultaneously in order to choose their parties' presidential candidates. PROS:

  • No state or region would receive disproportionate influence in this process.
  • The nominating process would mirror the presidential election process and create a standardized "system" to elect our presidents.


  • Only the best-funded candidates could participate, and the number of choices for president would be severely diminished.
  • Only the largest, most delegate-rich states would receive great attention during the primary season. Some states would be ignored completely.

Most of these reforms would require some sort of national, top-down imposition on the states. State election laws would have to be circumvented, and the delegate selection process in states could become standardized. Federalists, or people who believe in variety and semi-autonomous states, would have a hard time supporting any such proposal. And that's what's at the heart of this debate: the difficult balance that exists between having a centralized, controlled system designed for efficiency, and a federalism-based system that gives maximum ability to the individual states to develop their own rules and procedures. After all, the president and vice president are the only elected officials in the United States who have to be selected and elected by more than one state.


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