February 19, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 11

Election Year a Primary Education

By R. Shep Melnick

About a month ago the media declared John Kerry's presidential campaign dead on arrival. Then he won 12 of the first 14 contests. Howard Dean, anointed the front-runner before any votes had been counted, went out with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a scream. Having called everything wrong during the short-lived primary season, the punditry is now boldly offering its predictions on the November election. Ignore those men behind the screen. No one knows who will win in the fall.

Rather than try to guess what will happen next, it might be useful to reflect on what the past few months teach us about the way we choose our presidents. A good way to start is by acknowledging the bizarre nature of our nominating process. Take, for instance, the fact that every election cycle we spend three years focusing on the horserace within the two parties and only three months focusing on differences between the parties. This despite the fact that in contemporary politics intra-party differences have become relatively minor while inter-party differences have become increasingly significant.

As a result, during the long primary season everyone obsesses about minor policy disputes ("I was against the war before you were."), battling biographies ("You may have served in Vietnam, but I became a general."), silly slogans (only one candidate had "Joementum"), and ephemeral judgments of style ("John Edwards is so cute, but isn't his face too boyish for a president?") Is it any wonder that no other large democracy uses primaries to choose its party leaders?

To make matters worse, we use the weirdest political calendar: Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina...Those who have heard Howard Dean's famous "concession" speech a hundred times can fill in the rest. Who made up this schedule, the writers for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show"? One can imagine the discussion that produced it: "OK, let's start with an isolationist farm state with these really complicated caucus rules that require people to go out at night in the dead of winter and sit through three-hour debates. Then let's move to an even smaller, colder state most notable for its venomous right-wing newspaper and its eccentric voting habits. Then on to the state that gave us Strom Thurmond, Bob Jones University, and John C. Calhoun. We can throw in New York, California, and Ohio after the nominee has already been selected." Now that should be a reliable way to pick the leader of the Free World.

Here's the most amazing thing of all: This jerry-rigged system works pretty well. Anyone searching for hard evidence that a merciful God looks out for drunks, young children, and the United States of America need look no further.

The current system of relying almost entirely on primaries and open caucuses to select presidential candidates is relatively new. Before 1972 state and local party leaders determined who would get the nomination. These "bosses" operating in "smoke-filled rooms" gave us such 20th-century presidents as Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy.

But this was too "elitist" for current sensibilities. After the bitter 1968 campaign the Democrats set up the McGovern Commission to redesign the entire process. The Democrats required primaries or open caucuses, and promptly nominated George McGovern, who lost in a landslide of historic proportions. Not an auspicious beginning.

Political scientists understandably concluded that this open, participatory system would always be dominated by the parties' "true believers" who cluster on the far right (Republicans) or the far left (Democrats). Party leaders, in contrast, want to win elections and thus prefer experienced centrist candidates to polarizing barn-burners. The new system, they warned, would produce more McGoverns and Goldwaters, alienating the vast number of voters in the middle.

The only problem with this convincing theory is that it doesn't fit the facts. Consider the Democratic nominees after 1972: Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, and, probably, Kerry. This is a pretty moderate, centrist group. The same can be said of most of the Republican nominees: Ford, Bush 41, Dole, and that "compassionate conservative" Bush 43. The major exception is Ronald Reagan, who managed not just to win two general elections, but also to become the most popular president in recent memory. That's not such a bad record for a nominating process. To be sure, the new system saddled us with Jimmy Carter, but, hey, the old one gave us Warren G. Harding.

The new nominating system in effect establishes a long series of off-Broadway auditions that screens out candidates who are inexperienced, politically tone-deaf, narrowly based, or gaffe-prone. Month after month, candidates must be sure-footed in coping with a large number of unexpected challenges. Unlike legislators, presidents' success or failure depends on how they respond to unpredictable and trying circumstances. So it's not a bad idea to see how they handle pressure before their finger is on the button.

To win the nomination candidates must secure the party's electoral base and show a capacity to reach out to swing voters. They must hold together a diverse coalition of idealistic volunteers, self-interested contributors, and opportunistic campaign operatives. Those who dismiss New Hampshire as "unrepresentative" overlook the fact that it is now an affluent, suburban state dominated by precisely those swing voters the Democrats need to win general elections. Republican candidates must show that they can reliably deliver the heartland (Iowa) and the South (South Carolina) while holding on to a few crusty Yankees in the north.

This is not to say that the nominating system always produces the best candidate. But the system does generally provide us with solid, experienced candidates who can represent the party's base while appealing to independents. Take John Kerry. Sure he's a liberal, but these days almost all Democrats are. His background in Vietnam and the Senate give him credibility on national defense, an absolute necessity for winning in November. Like all successful presidential candidates, he has leaned how to artfully straddle vexing issues that threaten to tear the party apart. In an old TV commercial the fierce defensive lineman Bubba Smith described his tackling technique as grabbing the entire backfield and throwing players out until he found the quarterback. That's what our crazy-quilt nominating process does: it allows a motley pack of candidates to enter, then keeps eliminating them until the party finds someone who can perform a number of difficult tasks reasonably well. So let's stop carping about its obvious flaws and marvel at the fact that it works as well as it does.

-R. Shep Melnick is the Thomas P. O'Neill Professor of American Politics

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