The Case against Presidential Primaries

Elections are sometimes called celebrations of democracy, but the 2012 election, especially for many Republicans, is hardly a joyous occasion.  Three things in particular seem disturbing.

First, the campaign seems far, far too long.  It began over a year before the actual voting, and fatigue has already set in.

Second, the contest has become hugely expensive, costing tens of millions even before the two-candidate race begins.

Lastly, and particularly for Republicans (and perhaps many independents), the current candidate menu is not especially appetizing.  Sort of like a vegan being stuck in a steak house searching for something minimally edible.  Dissatisfaction is not limited to the GOP this year.  Even some Democrats are beginning to question the Obama/Clinton choice in 2008.  

Why the unhappiness, and, more importantly, can it be avoided in 2016?  The explanation of the malaise is simple: the current presidential primary system.  Abolish multiple primaries, and the campaign will be brief (three to four months, not a year-plus), costs will drop dramatically, and the menu will improve, though it may not be ideal.  America would be far better off if we returned to an era when party nominees were chosen at conventions, not primaries.    

Some history.  The current 30+ primary arrangement is only a recent development.  The first presidential primary occurred in 1910, and it quickly spread to 12 other Progressive-dominated states.  A handful of states used them from the 1930s to the 1960s, but primaries were non-binding "beauty contests," not real elections to select delegates.  Only on rare occasion did a primary matter -- for example, Harry S Truman's poor showing in the 1952 New Hampshire primary convinced him to not run and thus cleared the path for Adlai Stevenson.  Similarly, Dwight D. Eisenhower in the same primary defeated initial frontrunner Robert A. Taft to demonstrate his electability.  Most famously, President Johnson's lackluster performance in the 1968 New Hampshire primary against Eugene McCarthy persuaded him not to seek a second full term (LBJ actually won, but by a lower-than-expected margin).

The use of a single primary to make a point about electability also occurred in the 1960 campaign, when the Democrat (and Catholic) John F. Kennedy demonstrated national viability by winning in the overwhelmingly Protestant West Virginia.

Yes, a primary victory or two might be electorally relevant, but no candidate ever captured his party's nomination via the primary route.  The nomination came via support from state-chosen party delegates assembled at national conventions (with "backroom deals" among "party hacks" in "smoke-filled rooms," according to critical reformers).  

Everything changed after the raucous, riot-plagued 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.  This occurred first within the Democratic Party, but the GOP soon followed thanks to "anti-boss champions of the people" reformers.  The 1970s slogan "all power to the people" captures this mentality.  In an historical instant, primaries went from being a small part of the nominating process to being decisive (the number of presidential primaries varies from election to election but is usually around 35).

Is a primary-based system more democratic?  Again, a complex issue, particularly as to whether primary voters are representative, but much suggests that primaries make elections less democratic.  First, unlike state and local party functionaries, whose livelihood depends on winning, primary voters are irresponsible.  The key word is accountability.  If convention delegates exercise poor judgment, they pay for their error with reduced patronage, less access, and most importantly, political ineptitude at the very top.  Having an unpopular candidate at the top of the ticket may even bring catastrophe at the state and local level.  By contrast, primary voters (who may not even be of the same party as the candidate) bear no personal responsibility for foolishness.  They can indulge crackpot schemes or any other urges without having to suffer consequences (unlike a primary vote, convention delegate votes expose foolishness to public view).

Second, a yearlong war of attrition puts a premium on campaigning and fund-raising skills at the expense of less obvious but ultimately more critical talents for governing.  Old-style politicians used to distinguish between show horses and work horses, and today's primary system clearly favors show horses.  That a candidate has a knack for unlimited travel, repeating the same speech daily, or being able to reduce complex issues to sound bites for TV "debates" hardly demonstrates presidential qualifications.  No doubt, many potentially qualified candidates cannot face the prospect of this ordeal.  Say what you want about intoxicated convention delegates cutting deals in smoked-filled backrooms, but these party stalwarts usually knew governance firsthand and could detect an empty suit when they saw one.

Lastly, there is the issue of TV as king-maker.  With dozens of candidates running, unelected, unaccountable media executives now make critical decisions on candidate coverage.  How many primary voters know much about the accomplished ex-governor Gary Johnson?  By contrast, Herman Cain, a complete political amateur, was far more attractive to the media, so reporters covered him while the more experienced Johnson languished.  Do we really want CBS executives, not elected state office-holders, deciding which candidate deserves closer scrutiny?  Recall the unexpected rise of Jimmy Carter in 1976 -- this folksy peanut farmer ex-governor was perfect for a novelty-infatuated media trying to excite jaded viewers.

Oddly, this dysfunctional method of choosing party nominees goes unchallenged.  Regardless of our boredom and unease with the proffered menu, let alone burgeoning costs, not a peep of objection.  Why?  The answer is clear: the costly, tedious system is an economic windfall, and bountifulness kills any discussion of alternatives.

Today's media, especially TV and newsprint, are losing ad revenue, and this makes round-the-clock campaign commercials a savior.  If media executives had their way, the first primary would occur immediately after the general election and continue uninterrupted with billion-dollar government subsidies.  The gravy train also includes all the campaigns staffs plus the countless consultants who produce commercials, buy the airtime, and advise candidate how to target specific groups of voters.  

Meanwhile, newspapers and TV stations desperately need cheap "news," and nothing outshines political coverage -- candidates gladly appear for free, and the bare-bones sets for talking heads never change.  No wonder Fox is so incredibly lucrative -- so many candidates to fill the airwaves at zero cost.  In the meantime, cash-strapped newspapers recycle press releases as "news" while filling their op-ed pages with ghostwritten material supplied gratis.

A primary is also an economic bonanza.  My students who worked in the New Hampshire primaries told me of sold-out over-priced motels plus packed bars and restaurants (and this in turn generates tax revenue).  Having a primary is the perfect stimulus package -- all benefits, no lingering debt.  Compare this windfall to holding a two-day state nominating convention to select delegates to attend the national convention.

Abolishing primaries is easy -- the choice is made only by the national parties, not the states themselves.  It would be simple to return to a system of few primaries in the spring, two-party conventions during the summer, and a campaign to begin after Labor Day of that year -- not Labor Day of the previous year!  A shortened campaign will also encourage public funding and thus end the ceaseless money-grubbing (see here).  But this perfectly sensible shift will undoubtedly elicit howls of protest from all those feeding off the status quo.  So, the question is one of continuing to allow the tail to wag the dog.