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Looking back on a topsy-turvy primary season: Did it work?

By Donald L. RheemStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 1988


WHEN the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Gov. Michael Dukakis came to an agreement Monday morning, the Democratic convention was, in a sense, all but over before it began. Once again, the often dire predictions and speculations of the press and political pundits failed to materialize. But that has been the trademark of Campaign '88. Unfulfilled predictions based less on substance than speculation have been commonplace. What happened to the forecasts of a brokered convention, to take only the most dramatic example? After a haywire primary season full of upsets, early victories, and drastically altered procedures (such as Super Tuesday), some observers are asking if it all worked. Was the public well served by this year's primary process?

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The process has yielded up two presumed major-party nominees who, in most experts' judgment, are qualified to be president: In that sense, the system worked.

Yet critics of the primary process say it was flawed in important ways. Major complaints include:

The process turned many people off, with the result that they refused to get involved.

Media coverage of the primaries skewed the process.

Money plays too large a role in determining candidates' success.

The system favors some states over others.

``Out here, by and large, I would say the process didn't work,'' says Jerry Collester, a political scientist at Principia College in Illinois. ``Voters are negative on the process, they were confused about the candidates, and they don't jolly-well care,'' he says. As a result, many voters simply chose not to participate.

Nancy Neuman, president of the League of Women Voters, says the current system fails voters because it doesn't tell them any more about the candidates than can be conveyed in short media ``bites.''

``I think it has put somewhat of a barrier between the voter and the candidates, in that it's hard for the voters to find out who these people are,'' she says, adding, ``We are really getting packaged and managed candidates.''

Early speculation that the process would yield multiple winners resulting in, at least for the Democrats, a brokered convention, could not have been more wrong. The nominees were, in fact, effectively decided much earlier than in previous primary seasons.

In 1912 there were just 12 state primaries, and as late as 1952 there were still only 16 primaries. The Democrats held some three dozen primaries in 1988, a direct result of reform within the party. The objective was to shift away from the selection of nominees by party bosses in ``smoke-filled rooms'' and toward a more open and democratic process.

The predominant role of money is also under scrutiny, since the two likely nominees - Michael Dukakis and George Bush - also happened to be the most successful fund-raisers.

Referring to the emphasis on money, Fred Martin, Sen. Albert Gore Jr.'s former campaign manager, asks, when ``average voters are not part of that activity, how democratic is the process?''

``The second problem that arises from the role of money is that money means survival,'' Mr. Martin continues. ``When you run out of money you withdraw. If you have money you don't withdraw, because there is no reason not to continue.''

``Money is a crucial factor,'' agrees Gary Nordlinger, a Democratic consultant. But, he says, money is not enough ``to sweep you into the White House. Al Haig spent a ton of money, Pat Robertson spent a ton of money. And neither of them went anywhere. So money alone is not going to do it.''