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Better in 1984?

June 3, 1980



The last big blast of presidential primaries today ought to be the opening gun for improving the American nomination system by 1984. There are ways to do so without waiting for some federal master plan. The political terrain is littered with such plans -- for regional primaries, for a national primary, for primaries confined to four specified dates -- that have fallen to earth during the past four years. What can be done before some new national consensus has arrived is for each state to consider the possibilities for making its own procedures better.

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We don't pretend to have the answers that have been eluding party pros as they have watched a decade of often progressive change in nominating procedures appear to get out of hand. But enough interesting suggestions have been made to generate the kind of constructive thinking necessary to address the situation that has developed.

The long-ago introduction of the primary election promised to broaden citizen participation and reduce the influence of the legendary smoke-filled room. But the mushrooming of primaries to 35 states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia has seemed to create other sources of influence, such as the media, which raise their own questions.

It is easy to say that the parties would not be faced with decline under the transformed system if they had not displayed the shortcomings which helped to bring about the transformation. And the nomination of candidates through a party elite did not guarantee superior candidates as a glance at the roster of United States presidents indicates.

Nevertheless, by and large, the party system has served to maintain some political orderliness in what would have been a chaotic democratic scene. Party expertise remains important in the candidate selection process. The laudable efforts to democratize the parties themselves in recent years should provide the basis for enhancement of the process rather than deterioration of it.

A key to this enhancement appears to lie in achieving the optimum mix of nominating procedures for each state. For instance, caucus selection of delegates, drawing on the resources of party pros, can be combined with apportionment of delegates through primary vote. Sometimes shifts in methods may be made to serve a "favorite son" or other candidate of the moment. But the thrust should be toward refining procedures for long-term effectiveness.

The basic goal ought to be a bringing to the surface of the most fully representative candidates. In some places this may be best achieved through the kind of grass-roots, one- on-one campaigning of the caucus system, rather than through primaries with consistently low voters turnouts. This year voter participation in both caucuses and primaries has been unexpectedly high -- or was until the results began to seem a foregone conclusion. But in the 1968-1976 years of marked rise in the numbers of primaries, the participation in them has been estimated at less than 30 percent of voting-age citizens.

Among suggestions on this matter is a proposal that a caucus-convention system be substituted for a primary in a state where voter turnout fails to reach some figure such as 40 percent. Another is that, when the turnout is less than two-thirds of those eligible, the primary outcome should not be binding on the elected delegates.

Consideration of such proposals may not get at one of the main targets of nomination criticism -- the inordinate length of time spent by some candidates in campaigning for the job. A danger is seen in the possibility of excluding those who cannot work full-time at campaigning. A question is raised as to whether the qualities needed for conducting this kind of campaign, with all its wooing of the media and the populace -- and neglecting of professional politics -- are the ones best suited for the presidency.

Such matters obviously must be included in the thinking about nomination procedures that ought to go on during the next four years. But it shouldn't be forgotten that the people's judgment is the fundamental factor. They must finally be trusted to discriminate among candidates whatever the framework they are presented in. The flexibility of the present system, which allows it to be so confusing, also allows it to make necessary adjustments under the people's impetus. We submit that these can be begun all over the country while a national improvement effort continues.