Features

Death of the parties?

National | The presidential primary system-characterized by a fundraising marathon, small-state sprint, and media beauty contest-has virtually displaced the role of the parties in selecting nominees for the most powerful office in the land. Isn't there a better way?

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

Thirty-seven days. If you don't count weekends when there was no daily press coverage, the time was shorter, only about a month. That's how long it took both the Republicans and Democrats to choose their presidential nominees this year. The intense GOP contest lasted from the time John McCain won the New Hampshire primary on February 1st, until he withdrew the day after Super Tuesday (March 8). The decision for the Democrats took one additional week, since the Iowa caucuses were the opening of the Gore vs. Bradley race. When it was over, voters in 23 states had cast nearly 23 million votes: That's about 11.5 percent of the eligible voting population. Is this a good way to choose the two major candidates for the most powerful job in the world? The primary system in America has become a grand contradiction, a marathon of early fundraising events followed by a furious media sprint at the end. The process increasingly downgrades political parties by allowing strangers to vote, "front-loads" a few state contests to the detriment of others, and results in an extraordinary rush to judgment. How did we get into the predicament where a few voters, in a few states, in a few weeks, determine the nominees of our two major political parties? Presidential nominations were once won by candidates who courted party leaders from important states or cities, then met in a national convention to settle upon a nominee. Party leaders appeared at the convention usually at the head of a delegation representing their state party, though sometimes they remained neutral until they arrived on the floor of the convention. Depending upon the circumstances then, leaders might decide to rally around one of the front-runners, or choose a "dark-horse candidate" with fewer enemies who could unite the party. When national political conventions were in their heyday, the process was very deliberative. A number of stalled roll-call votes could result in a "smoke-filled room" decision. Speeches and debate led to floor fights, second thoughts, modified opinions, and changed minds. Sometimes this process could be draining, even comical. In 1924, the Democrats met in New York and endured 124 roll-call votes, prompting one grizzled boss to quip late at night, "Gentlemen, we must either move to a more liberal candidate, or a less expensive hotel." Electoral primaries make conventions secondary
The importance of political conventions in presidential elections expired in the late evening of Aug. 27, 1968. On that night, a badly divided Democratic National Convention approved a minority report to reform the rules governing national conventions and presidential nominations. The subsequent McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms insisted that delegates be elected in primary elections, in caucuses held by local parties, or at state conventions. Once selected, delegates were "bound" to the winner in that state. The effect of these reforms was to take power away from party leaders and give it to voters back home in the states. Democrats began having more primaries in 1972. That same year, the Republican Party followed the lead of its rival with a set of reforms for its own convention. The GOP allowed state party organizations to settle on how delegates were selected, but the result was the same: more participation by the rank-and-file, and less by party bosses. The number of primaries grew from 18 in 1968 to more than 40 in 2000. In 1968 only 40 percent of the delegates to either the Democratic or Republican national party conventions were picked in primaries; in 1996 over two-thirds of the Democratic delegates, and 80 percent of the Republican delegates, were selected in primaries. Today, "favorite son" candidates, repeat roll-call votes, and convention floor fights are but a memory. Nominations are now won by accumulating pledged delegates in a state-by-state march through primary elections and caucuses-a time-consuming, complicated, and costly process. Smoke-filled newsrooms
Beginning in 1972, presidential campaigns became candidate-driven, and the news media-especially television-took over the role once exercised by political parties. That's the role of choosing the front-runner-the favorite to win. As television personality and Washington insider Cokie Roberts says, "They [candidates] can't operate without us, and we can't operate without them." Today the media examine how much money each candidate raises, comment on candidate performances in debates, and survey voter opinions through polls and exit interviews. The media focus on who is ahead or behind, rather than on policy differences among the candidates. Influential members of the media assign favorites in advance, tell how each candidate is likely to do in an upcoming primary, and weigh that candidate's performance and standing relative to polls comparing expectations. Paul Tsongas summed up the symbiotic relationship between the press and a candidate in a primary campaign when he answered a question in 1992 by saying, "That's a good question, let me try to evade you." The winner in a primary election must now do "better than expected" by the media, and a losing candidate who fares better than the polls predict can establish himself as a serious contender. A "good" loss can inspire supporters in subsequent states, just as a "bad" victory can dispirit them. James Caesar, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, describes the process this way: "The media love the story, which is to say that they ... turn politics into drama, rather than reporting on the drama of politics." The most crucial factor for candidates in the presidential contest is the calendar of events of the primary season. States elbow for placement early in the presidential television show. "Front-loading" refers to holding a large number of primaries and caucuses where a significant number of delegates are selected early in the political year. In 1968, 12 weeks passed before 50 percent of the delegates were selected for the national convention; in 2000, half the delegates were chosen within five weeks. The system of spaced-out primaries has disappeared. This year 27 states were left out of the nomination process simply because they held their primaries after the winners were decided on March 7. Crossovers crashing the parties
The question of who should vote in a presidential primary is another problem candidates face every four years. Statistics show that more Americans than ever are participating in primary elections, with rates at about 30 percent to 40 percent of the general election vote. This year, 15 of the first 19 states had some form of primary rule that allowed people to choose their party primary affiliation on election day. Political parties have relaxed the rules in the past decade to allow wider participation because more and more voters describe themselves as "independent" when it comes to politics. Exit polls find that both parties attract large numbers of independent voters. More than one-fifth of all primary voters in 1996 described themselves in this way. This further weakens political parties and the representatives of a party's candidate, because the winner of a party's primary may not be the choice of the party's regular members. This year, for example, crossover voting in Republican primaries muddied the numbers, because large numbers of Democrats and Independents participated in the Republican contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan. In the Michigan primary, Democrats without a primary of their own that day crossed over to give John McCain a victory. Today, primaries offer multiple candidates, hectic campaign schedules, and constant media coverage. What calculus do voters use to decide how to vote, given the shallow impressions of television ads and the transient nature of the primary election? Political science surveys since 1980 find that primary voters are more sophisticated than general election voters, and that they often vote strategically-meaning their decisions are based more on who has the best chance of winning in the fall, than on any feelings of affection for a particular candidate. But those estimates are highly media-influenced. Made-for-television politics
The culmination of the primary process is the national party convention, which has only two functions in the modern media campaign. First, in convention, the party faithful ratify the choice of a vice president in the hope that party unity will lead to victory in the fall. Second, his nationally televised convention speech provides a rare opportunity for a presidential candidate to address the voting audience without media editing. The convention is a television mini-drama, scripted to the minute and choreographed in detail. The effect of the confusing and fleeting nature of political primaries may be that the best candidates choose not to run. As Frank McKinney Hubbard said about politics in the last century, "We'd like to vote for the best man, but he's never a candidate." When aspirants with the greatest likelihood of winning decide not to run, challengers of lesser quality frequently step up to fill the void. Leading up to the 1992 campaign, President Bush seemed unassailable, and most of the Democrats thought to be serious contenders decided not to run. One after another, the top potential candidates-Sen. Bill Bradley from New Jersey, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen from Texas, Sen. Jay Rockfeller from West Virginia, House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt from Missouri, and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo-all announced that they would not seek their party's nomination. Only Arkansas governor Bill Clinton remained as a major contender. Marathon men: A long, grueling fundraising race
It's hard to blame them; anyone who decides to pursue the presidency must be prepared to devote two years of his or her life to a marathon schedule of fundraising events and campaign stops. Recent presidential contenders declared their candidacy an average of 400 days before the opening of their party conventions. Compare this time to John Kennedy's 1960 announcement barely six months before the party convention, and Dwight Eisenhower's revelation in 1952, one month before the Republicans gathered to choose a nominee. The nomination process has evolved since the early 1950s into one in which primaries predominate; in which a heavily polled public, instead of party activists, selects candidates; and where most candidates disclose their intentions up to a year and a half in advance. The calendar favors "front-loaded" state contests where a minority of voters-many of whom cross over to participate only on primary day-choose the nominee before a national television audience. With so many states scrambling for early recognition in the primary process, and the importance of television enlarging these contests, it is no wonder that reform proposals proliferate. Bill Brock, a former senator from Tennessee and one-time RNC chairman, presently chairs a committee to examine the primary process for the Republicans. The most popular proposal under consideration by both parties is a "tiered" approach. Under this system in 2004, the 10 smallest states would hold primaries in March, followed by medium-sized states in April, then the 10 largest states (responsible for about 40 percent of the vote) would conclude the primaries in May. This system would restore a measure of deliberation to the decision and triple the length of the primary season. In their better moments, most Americans still appreciate the higher calling of democratic self-government and want to be involved in the primary process. The primary system must be one that produces leaders people know and trust, not one in which a candidate can manipulate their emotions for a month.

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