A Democratic Primary

It’s time to give all voters a voice and have a national primary.

By Kenneth Baer

Tagged DemocratsElectionsPrimaries

New Hampshire’s Londonderry Middle School is an unlikely place to find Chuck Norris. The martial arts champion learned his fighting skills in Asia, made his money in Hollywood, and calls Texas home. Yet there Norris was this past January, sharing the small auditorium stage with the Londonderry High School jazz band “Funkpod,” a variety of flannel-clad local officials, and the winner of that week’s Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, Mike Huckabee.

Sitting at a table in the back of the room and nursing a Dunkin Donuts coffee, I traded rumors and theories about the coming New Hampshire primary with the gathered press corps. We had a lengthy debate over who Bruce Lee would endorse for president if he were alive (Barack Obama was the consensus choice). I was in politico heaven. Nowhere else can you get this close to the presidential candidates. Nowhere else can you so easily fall in with the traveling band of journalists, pundits, operatives, and activists who influence and shape the contest to be the next leader of the free world. Nowhere else can you see someone aspiring to be the nation’s commander-in-chief sharing the stage with a B-list action hero and jamming with a bunch of teenagers.

I’ve been going to New Hampshire primaries in various capacities for 16 years. But, despite my deep fondness for the event, I’ve come to realize that the New Hampshire presidential primary must end. The entire system of choosing our presidential nominees is confusing, undemocratic, and fundamentally flawed. Early primaries in small states unrepresentative of the larger population have an outsized effect on the outcome. Peculiar local issues often dominate the debate and tie the hands of a future president. As states compete to be more relevant in the selection of the party nominees, the process has become hyper-front-loaded: This year, more than 20 states held their primaries on February 5, the first day of the normal nominating calendar, allocating more than half of all Democratic delegates and 41 percent of Republican ones. Once a candidate secures enough delegates to become the nominee, they will have to endure an increasingly longer interregnum period during which they are in political purgatory as the “presumptive nominee,” unable to receive federal matching funds to power their campaigns. This, in turn, is just part of the reason that the entire federal matching funds program has effectively fallen apart and the amounts of money raised during this cycle by the most competitive candidates have reached nine figures. Meanwhile, the conventions are nothing more than an extended political commercial devoid of any real deliberation. Indeed, the failure of the Democratic National Committee to prevent Florida and Michigan from moving up their state’s nominating contests by stripping these states of their delegates is further proof of the irrelevance of the conventions and the entire delegate selection process.

Of course, as I write this in late January, both the Democratic and Republican contests look like they not only could go to the final primaries in June, but even last until the conventions themselves. But these are unique cases, unlikely to be repeated. Over the past three decades, presidential nominating contests have gone to the end of the season only three times–1972 and 1984 for the Democrats, 1976 for the Republicans–and none of these occurred in the current political and media environment. More often than not, they are over before most people vote or even notice they’ve begun.

The simplest and most direct way to correct the worst elements of the current system would be to eliminate the entire charade of electing delegates to the conventions. Instead, we should hold one national primary, on one day, for both parties.

The national primary is not a new idea. It is a Progressive Era innovation first proposed by Alabama Congressman Richard Hobson in 1911 and endorsed by political science-professor-turned-president Woodrow Wilson. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt proposed it to William Howard Taft to settle which of them would be the Republican nominee; Taft, the incumbent, refused. From that time until 1979, the national primary has been put forward in Congress 126 times by a determined, dedicated, and tiny band of reformers, including Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.), the last big proponent of the idea.

But despite its small amount of support on Capitol Hill, the national primary has garnered majority support in nationwide polls. From 1952 until 1988, Gallup consistently polled Americans on their support for various nominating process reforms; the national primary always had wide support and never had opposition in excess of 27 percent. More recently, a 2007 New York Times poll found that 72 percent of Americans favored a single day for all primaries.

The logic behind the national primary has not changed in its hundred-year history. “A people who are qualified to vote for candidates at the general election are likewise qualified to vote for candidates at the primary election,” wrote Senator George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska, in 1923. “It requires no more intelligence.” That voters want their votes to count and their voices to be heard is a simple and direct notion, but one that, today, is rarely borne out by the primary process. Take 2000, the last time neither party had an incumbent presidential candidate. According to political scientist Rhodes Cook, 43.5 percent of all those who voted in primaries or participated in caucuses were “rubber-stampers” from late-voting states with no role at all in deciding who their party’s nominee would be; 43.6 percent were “confirmers” who merely ratified the front–runner who emerged from the first round of states; and just 12.9 percent of voters–about four million people in both parties–were the “kingmakers” in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire who actually decided who would be their party’s nominee. With such little influence, it’s no wonder that since 1972, only about one-third of all eligible voters have participated in the nominating process in any given election year.

Having so many voters effectively disenfranchised is bad enough. But those who are empowered also reflect an unrepresentative elite. They tend to be older, better educated, wealthier, and more ideological than the general electorate and even the party’s rank-and-file–a disparity that also appears in the make-up of the nominating conventions themselves. In this year’s Iowa Caucuses, for instance, 60 percent of Republican attendees said that they were evangelical or born-again Christians, compared with 23 percent of the general electorate in 2004. And as Senator Hillary Clinton rightly pointed out earlier this year, caucuses are particularly unrepresentative: “In a situation of a caucus, people who work during that time–they’re disenfranchised. People who can’t be in the state or who are in the military . . . they cannot be present.” To add to that list, caucuses (which were embraced by party bosses to thwart the democratic reforms of 1972) have high barriers to participation (usually two hours of one’s time), lack a secret ballot, do not always adhere to the principle of “one person, one vote,” and are governed by arcane rules. These early, unrepresentative caucuses and primaries that dominate the candidates’ attention also warp their policy prescriptions. Would the United States embrace ethanol so strongly if New Jersey, and not Iowa, held the first caucuses?

A national primary could work this way. To get on the ballot, a candidate would need nominating petitions with signatures from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, equivalent to 1 percent of the overall turnout of the most recent presidential election in that state. Once on the ballot, a national primary would be held in the late spring. If no one received a majority of their party’s vote, there would be a run-off between the top two vote-getters 10 days later. Conventions would be held later in the summer to gather the party faithful, hear the nominee, lay out its platform, and affirm his or her selection for vice president. With less on the agenda, conventions could be curtailed to two days, saving millions of dollars of federal (and networks’) funds and focusing the country’s attention on the one thing that the conventions do well: showcasing the party’s nominee and message.

The two most frequent objections are that a national primary would eliminate the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire and that it would favor the candidate with the most money, since only the wealthiest would be able to advertise on national television. Yet TV ads are not the holy grail of advertising or political communication; if that’s all it took to win people over, the candidate–or even the car company–with the biggest ad budget would be the most successful.

More importantly, such an argument overlooks how the nominating process actually works. The “invisible primary”–the period from the last ballot in one general election to the first ballot in the first primary of the next–is no longer a warm-up; it’s a critical part of the process. Candidates travel the country trying to win support of party leaders, single-issue and party activists, potential staff members, interest groups, community leaders, donors, and elected officials–in a word, the party. This takes candidates to their share of office suites, but it also takes them to union halls, churches, chambers of commerce, issue group conventions, and even constituency-specific debates. Indeed, last year, there were so many Democratic presidential debates that the national party had to step in. This type of personal politicking is now critical to building support among the party, broadly understood, for a slog through the primary season; in a national primary system, it would become even more important. Moreover, with such petition requirements, candidates would have to organize in all 50 states to gather signatures; again, winning support of the broad party coalition would be critical to this effort–and can’t be done through TV advertising alone. Retail politics would not disappear.

It’s at this point that someone pulls the Jimmy Carter card, arguing that the current system enables a relative unknown to emerge. This idea is as dated as a can of “Billy Beer.” Carter is, in fact, the only candidate to have made such a journey, and even he made important moves to build support during the Invisible Primary, winning, for instance, the Iowa State straw poll in 1975. And Carter benefited immensely from being the first candidate to exploit fully the dynamics of the new nominating system.

More importantly, 2008 is not 1976. The invisible primary period is now critical and would still require a significant personal component to politicking. There is now a national political community, one that is deeply plugged in to every utterance and strategic feint through a universe of partisan and non-partisan blogs, talk radio, YouTube, and specialty publications like the Hotline and the Politico. This creates a national debate among the members of the party coalition, enabling relatively unknown or untested candidates with no national organization (such as Howard Dean) to build support and effectively compete across the country. If a candidate says something silly or inspiring in Santa Fe, voters–or at least opinion leaders–from Savannah to Seattle will hear about it in an instant. This not only dissipates the power of a “surprise” early win in our current system, but in a national primary system, it also would allow an unknown candidate to leverage pockets of regional support and strong local performances–whether in signature-gathering, at debates, or in front of party gatherings. While we would lose the symbolic protest victories that can occur throughout a long primary process (Jerry Brown in Connecticut in 1992 or Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire in 1996), the door would not be shut on more substantial candidates who are nevertheless outside the party establishment (such as Gary Hart in 1984 or John McCain in 2000).

The national primary is a radical idea, and it may not solve all the problems with our nominating process; until there is public financing of elections, for example, money will be the mother’s milk of politics. But a national primary does eliminate the most undemocratic elements of the current system. And for that, I’m willing to experiment–and give up seeing Chuck Norris on the campaign trail.

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Kenneth Baer is the co-editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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