Primaries -- better than 'bossism'?

It's done! -- virtually. After some 37 primaries in five months, the United States has two major-party presidential nominees. It also has a Republican running as an independent, a liberal Democrat who won't admit defeat, and dozens of polls indicating a large percentage of voters prefer "none of the above."

Is there a better way? The Monitor surveyed five well-known election experts , and all agreed that any other "reasonably democratic" nominating system would have produced the same results this year.

Those experts gave a wider range of ratings on how well the 1980 system worked -- from "it worked perfectly" to the charge that the system, dominated by the news media, forced the public to decide in "gross ignorance" of what kind of presidents most of the candidates would actually have made.

The spread in the experts' ideas on changing the process is likewise wide: from not tinkering with the system at all to formulas for collapsing the race from five months to a few weeks, holding state primaries on regional or national primary days, and reserving a third of the national convention seats for party "pros" in order to postpone until the last moment certainly as to who the presidential nominee will be.

Here are the experts' views, from most to least favorable:

Richard Sammon, director of the Elections Research Center, says, "The system worked perfectly." Citing clarity of outcome and wide public participation as 1980 pluses, Mr. Scammon says, "The people spoke. They determined two unmistakable, solid winners. The campaign was active throughout the states -- with the most primaries, and the most people participating ever."

In his typically pithy fashion, Mr. Scammon adds: "Most two complain about the system are either sore losers or pundits and intellectuals who think the real choice should be made at the Harvard faculty club dining table, though they won't say that."

David Gergen, managing editor of Public Opinion magazine and an early adviser to Republican George Bush, observed, "Many people criticizing the system don't like the candi dates it produced. But this year, any reasonably democratic system would have come to the same result. Given what we know about public discontent with the candidates this year, if they'd been selected by the boys in the back room there would have been a great public uproar.

"The move to the series of primaries has been a plus," Mr. Gergen says. "We ought to try this for a while before making any radical departure. The present system allows candidates without high name recognition at the outset to have a chance. I would oppose a national primary or regional primaries. I like forcing candidates to go door to door in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. It's healthy in a democracy for the people to be involved."

Voter opinion trend analyst Everett Ladd calls it "a flawed system," but adds that while "the people may grumble about the length" of the primary process, "there's no rebellion over it."

He singles out a lack of "peer" or "party pro" input as the chief flaw needing remedy. And he has made reform proposals that are getting serious attention here in Washington.

Mr. Ladd would reserve one-third of all convention seats for party officials. The other two-thirds would be selected, by states, on a single national primary day, held the first Tuesday in June. Delegates would be divided in proportion to vote results, and would go the party conventions as state delegations.

"The thought of a brokered convention doesn't bother me," Mr. Ladd says. "If a leader gets 27 percent of the delegates on primary day, he would have to get from 27 to 50 percent at the convention with the help of party leaders. There would likely be a second ballot, with all delegates released. The delegates would have the advice of the primary voting, poll ratings, and party pros to go by.

"A candidate who swept the primaries with 60 percent of the vote would win on the first ballot. But this system would allow someone with 33 percent in the primaries to win over someone with 40 percent, as maybe he should."

Austin Ranney, a leading authority on the US election process, thinks the effort to democratize the nominations -- taking them away from the party bosses (an anachronistic phrase today, by the way) who controlled nominations from 1832 to 1968 -- has produced an unwieldy result.

"The system has not really worked," he says. "It's produced two [major party ] candidates in 1980 -- and perhaps the first major third-party candidate since George Wallace. It has given us one person, Mr. Reagan, about whom we don't know very much. And the other guy it well-known and widely regarded as a flop in the job."

Mr. Ranney thinks it likely that Congress within the next 10 years will adopt a national, one-day primary.

"We now have a Democratic convention of 3,300 delegates -- a mob scene," Mr. Ranney says. "A convention that size can be harangued, but there can't be any genuine deliberation of issues."

However, presidential historian James David Barber thinks delegates should go to the conventions unpledged, "so there is at least one place in the system where there is some deliberation on the candidates." He suggests holding regional primaries on the five Saturdays preceding the convention. But he concedes "this wouldn't really change much."

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