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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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?

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:

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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.''

Voters in some states feel ignored by the nominating process, either because they send so few delegates to the parties' conventions or because they cast their votes so late in the game that the winnowing process has already run its course. Whereas voters in Iowa got the chance to look over 13 candidates in February, those in the four states holding their primaries on June 7 had only three.

From the standpoint of some state officials, the problem is more than simply feeling left out. Candidates spend a lot of money in the early states, and all the free media attention becomes a major public-relations opportunity for city and state officials.

Iowa milked the heavy media presence in the weeks before its caucuses. State officials set up a store-front operation in Des Moines to help the thousands of visiting reporters spread the word that Iowa has lots to offer. The objective: to attract more business and convention traffic to the state.

Regional issues also get short shrift. Western states complained that candidates gave too little concern to water and environmental issues.

It was exactly this concern, the notion of being left out and ignored, that led to the creation of Super Tuesday, when 20 states, mostly in the South, held primaries or caucuses on the same day, March 8.

Some political pundits, however, have labeled Super Tuesday a disaster, since Southern Democrats did not get a regional conservative at the top of the party's ticket, as they had hoped, and because officials in some states felt they actually got less attention, not more. Several states already have plans to pull out of the March vote-a-thon before 1992.

As a result of the many perceived shortfalls in the system, changes ranging from moving to a national primary to complete federal funding of the campaigns have been floated.

Paul Herrnson, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, warns against the dangers of changing the system, however:

``When you start mucking around with party rules and election laws, there are unintended consequences. So long as these primaries and caucuses are open in the sense that anyone can participate, I think they are fine.''

Moreover, some experts see some genuine strengths in the current primary process. For one thing, it allows unknown candidates to emerge from the pack, says Herbert Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University. ``The fact that Iowa and New Hampshire are relatively manageable and ... they occur early, allows the Jimmy Carter or Mike Dukakis to do well.''

``I happen to like our primary system,'' says Mr. Nordlinger, the Democratic analyst. ``It really weeds out the good candidates from the bad candidates. You have ample opportunities to make mistakes. It shows your ability to manage money, your ability to manage people, and ... get a message across, [to] sell yourself.''

``I have a lot of respect for the American electorate,'' Nordlinger continues, ``and I think that given enough time and exposure they can pretty well sense out ... who is going to be a good office holder and who is a fraud.''

Although changes in Democratic Party rules are expected to be approved at the convention, few major changes are anticipated. Many states will also be examining their rules, and there have been congressional hearings recently looking into changes at the federal level.

Ultimately, says Terry Michael, Sen. Paul Simon's former press secretary, you have to decide what the process is for. ``It's good or bad for the party based on whether the party wins in November,'' he says.

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