Is the American political primary system a success? The move to primaries in 37 states was supposed to rescue selection of presidential candidates from the political bosses who dominated party conventions. Primaries and precinct caucuses began last Jan. 21 in Iowa, Puerto Rico (Feb. 17), and New Hampshire (Feb. 26), and have just come to a grand finale. The nation now knows, or thinks it knows, who the presidential candidates will be.
Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland calls the system a success. He told reporters here June 4 that it lets voters "blow off steam" and "send a message to Washington." Mr. Bergland notes, however, that the 154-day primary interval is just the first phase of the election process, which now enters Phase II with the two party conventions -- Republicans in Detroit (July 14-17) and Democrats in New York (Aug. 11 to 14). Then and only then comes Phase III, when selected candidates face each other and perhaps debate, and the voters cast their ballots Nov. 4.
No other democracy has a drawn-out system like this. Japan, for example, is currently holding a national election. It will last five weeks, with the vote June 22. During the interval of the American primaries, Japan could have held four elections.
The revolt against the old convention system gained force after turmoil in the Democratic convention of 1968. It started with a few primaries; this year, the busiest ever, there were a total of 37.
The Founding Fathers thought they had met the problem of candidate selection by creating an Electoral College Representing an upper-class elite. Its first presidents were spectacular -- Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe -- a remarkable series of statesmen for a little nation of around 4 million. Think of the giants that a nation of 200 million would produce! some speculated.
But James Bryce, in his classic "The American Commonwealth," devoted a chapter to the question, "Why are great men not elected to the presidency?" He argued the arts of getting elected are different from the arts of governing.
The system of electing US presidents has become progressively more "democratized." Now, the protracted series of primaries has just finished its work. It has winnowed out most of the aspirants on the Republican side in 1980, including John B. Connally, George Bush, Sens. Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.), and Bob Dole (Kan.), and Rep. Philip M. Crane (Ill.). Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois, technically a Republican, is still in the race as an independent; on the Democratic side, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts vows to carry his fight to the the party convention.
Protracted primaries require a new style of campaigning: Ambitious but littleknown politicians start months and years in advance to build recognition. (Jimmy Carter started running in 1974 for the 1976 Democratic nomination.) Candidates concentrate time and money on the earliest caucuses and primaries (Iowa, New Hampshire) in the attempt to be annointed "front-runner" by the press. The system makes the media an adjunct of the selection process as an arbiter of the contest.
As a method of selecting a president, who necessarily becomes a world leader if successful, it is probably the most arduous ordeal required by any democracy.
Back in 1956 Adlai Stevenson declared, "There may be crazier ways to select a president, but I can't think of one." Since then the primary system has been added.