The rush to jump the presidential primary queue.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
With less than five months to go before California’s presidential primaries, the final calendar for primaries across the country is still being contested, and Republican legislatures in Florida and Michigan are in revolt. Both states have set January dates for their contests after the national parties decided that only New Hampshire could hold its primaries in January.
The Democrats are threatening to exclude the whole delegation chosen in early elections, and the Republican penalty would be a 50 percent reduction in the offending state’s delegation. Whether the national parties dare impose such penalties against rebellious states as important as Florida and Michigan remains to be seen, but the intra-party squabbles have already led the New York Times to declare that “the presidential primary system is broken.” Whether the current presidential primaries deserve to be called systems is questionable, for that process includes a variety of different combinations of primary elections and party caucuses across the 50 states. Looking at the profusion of rules currently in place, one can be sure that intelligent design was not involved in its creation. Rather, the calendar and other party rules have simply evolved over the years, with waves of reform catching on in some states and not in others.
Part of the problem is that there is no constitutional starting point for political parties as such. Rather, early in the 19th century the factions of the founding fathers morphed into political parties that allowed like-minded citizens to get together to push political agendas that went beyond single issues. Initially the new parties operated like other private organizations. They were organizations of male property owners who made up their own rules when organizing their state delegations to the national conventions.
Just before World War I, progressive reformers, led by such worthies as California’s Hiram Johnson, worked with an expanded electorate to attack party caucuses, which they often described as smoke-filled backrooms filled with corrupt politicians. The progressives argued that ordinary citizens should be involved in the choice. In that age of good government reform, state after state adopted some form of primary election that gave voters a role in the selection process. These new elections operated under state laws, with only occasional interventions by Congress and the courts. The first party primaries were held in California early in the 20th century.
Iowa and New Hampshire have become stage sets where any candidate serious about winning party nomination must perform.
But the party process hasn’t gone away. Most states still have some form of party caucus, and Iowa’s two-layer caucuses compete with the New Hampshire primaries for national attention. These unlikely states have become stage sets where any candidate serious about winning party nomination must perform.
The importance of Iowa and New Hampshire is often criticized as having an exaggerated role in the process, but both are actually national events. The good folk in Iowa and New Hampshire, unrepresentative though they may be, conduct auditions, while the rest of us watch. The reviews start coming in with the candidate’s first visit to either state and every conversation or rally provides an opportunity to score a point against a competitor.
When the audition is over, the casting directors operate quite differently in the two states. The Iowa caucuses produce their candidates after extensive face-to-face deliberation among neighbors deeply involved in the detail of politics. Neighbors play a much smaller role in New Hampshire, where individual voters make their choices in private voting booths.
The sequencing of primaries has been controversial ever since 1948, when New Hampshire claimed the right to hold the first primaries, a privilege that has become a major economic asset for the state. California, on the other hand, has conducted its primaries late in the campaign, often after party choices had been made. Only in the disastrous 1968 campaign was the California primary important for either party. Then Robert Kennedy’s victory and assassination were the high and low points of a presidential campaign that ended with that transplanted Californian, Richard Nixon, winning over the Democrats’ second choice, Hubert Humphrey – both candidates California had rejected.
For all other elections California’s role has been to provide a major share of campaign funding for candidates from both parties. But 2008 will be different. California’s financial contributions still keep candidates coming for the big fundraisers, but now that we have joined the other large states in voting on Super Duper Tuesday (Feb. 5), candidates can no longer take the money and run.
Glynn Wood is a professor at Monterey Institute of International Studies.