The Primary Process: Evolving and Convoluted

Starting in the bleak winters of Iowa and New Hampshire, candidates for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations put themselves through a grueling four-month series of state primaries and caucuses that flings them hither and yon across the country in their quest for delegates to the national conventions.  The days when party elites controlled blocks of delegates and brokered conventions determined the party nominees have been replaced by a candidate-centered, media-driven affair that has come at times to resemble a traveling circus. 

In 1960 John Kennedy competed in primaries in just two states -- Wisconsin and West Virginia.  In the aftermath of the tumultuous 1968 Convention in Chicago the national Democratic Party instituted reforms which led to their current process. The primary system allows time for only the shallowest of campaigns in some states (thereby requiring expensive media campaigns), and it leaves millions of voters in late primaries with little say in the selection of the nominees.[1]  While it is true that all the candidates face the same rules, the current setup also discourages people with excellent qualifications from seeking their party's nomination.

David Broder, writing in an Op-Ed piece after the "travesty" of the New York primary, even suggested that going back to the "backroom bargaining" of the brokered convention era would be a preferable alternative.[2]  Broder noted that for the Democrats, two-thirds of the convention delegates were being selected in primaries, while party and elected officials accounted for 18% of delegates.  "If that proportion were reversed, it would be a better system," he wrote.  Earlier, in 1991, Senator Alan Dixon (D-MI) called for an overhaul of the primary system in his Regional Presidential Primaries and Caucuses Act of 1991 (S. 288), but the bill did not make any headway.

As chaotic as the primary season appears, there are rules.  At the national level, the parties set broad rules which they hope will result in a nominee who can win in November.

For example, Ron Brown, when he was Chairman of the Democratic Party, stated:[3]
The principles behind the 1992 delegate rules are straightforward: we want a process that creates a level playing field for all candidates, with preference or tilt to no one; we want rules which encourage our best and strongest candidates to step forward and offer themselves for nomination; we want rules which protect and strengthen the role of party organizations nationally, statewide, and locally; we want rules which encourage participation and which reach out to all segments of the American electorate; we want enforcement that is precise, well-defined and tough; we want rules which bring unity to the institutional Democratic Party instead of conflict.  
Within the framework of the national rules and requirements of state election codes, each state party sets its own rules for qualifying delegates to the national conventions.[4]  Meeting all the different states' filing requirements poses a significant challenge to the campaigns. 

The dominant method for selecting delegates is the primary.  Closed primaries are restricted to registered party members.  In an open primary, any registered voter can vote, so that members of one party may try to influence the outcome of the other party's primary.  In non-binding or beauty contest primaries, the delegates are selected by other means.

Caucuses are a multi-stage process that starts in precinct or district meetings and concludes with a state convention.  Caucuses require more active involvement than do primaries.  Participants cannot just take a quick trip to the polling booth; rather they must be willing sit through one or more meetings.  Candidates who can effectively organize grassroots support often do well in caucuses, but the system is used primarily in smaller states.

For the Democrats, a third class of delegates, called superdelegates, consists of a predetermined number of elected officials and party leaders who are unpledged and free to exercise their own judgments about which candidates to support.  Superdelegates, including members of the Democratic National Committee, members of Congress, state party chairs, governors and others selected by the state parties, give voice to the institutional party in the selection of the nominee.

As shown in the table below, for the Democrats, the proportion of delegates chosen through primaries has increased markedly beginning with the 1972 campaign.[5]

Democratic Delegates Selected by Primaries as a Percent of Total Delegates:
*the class of unpledged superdelegates was added in 1984. 

In 1992, 67 percent (3,516) of the total delegates (4,288) at the Democratic Convention were selected in primaries and 15 percent (648) were chosen in caucuses; superdelegates (772) accounted for the remaining 18 percent.  Terry Michael, former DNC press secretary, sums up the Democrats' nominating process by stating, "It allows the voices of rank-and-file Democrats to be heard without inhibiting the productive role which the broad-based institutional party can play in organizing electoral choices and in promoting the coalitions and consensus necessary for effective governance."[6]
Republican rules for selecting delegates differ from those of the Democrats in several important respects.  The Democratic Party has adopted an elaborate set of national rules designed to ensure full participation and a fair reflection of presidential preferences, while Republican rules allow the state parties more latitude in how they select their delegates.  In some instances, Republican rules were changed by default as the Democratic reforms were written into state election code.  However, there remain vestiges of the old structure, such as a number of states which use the winner-take-all system. 

Republicans have not created a class of superdelegates, but they do have a system of bonus delegates.  Each state, in addition to a base number of delegates and a number of delegates proportional to the number of seats it has in the House of Representatives, receives at-large bonus delegates based on Republican victories during the preceding three years.  A GOP presidential win in a state can add a significant number of bonus delegates in the next cycle.  Additional delegates are awarded for senatorial, gubernatorial, House and state legislative victories.

The Outsize Role of Iowa and New Hampshire
As the first states on the primary calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire have an impact far in excess of what one might expect from their small populations.  A candidate who does well in these contests will gain momentum and money, while one who does poorly may find his campaign at an end.  From 1952, when the New Hampshire primary first emerged, until 1992, no man had won the presidency without first winning in New Hampshire.  Bill Clinton became the first to do so.

The New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses offer presidential candidates an opportunity to engage in retail politics and to refine their messages before moving to a more media intensive mode later in the campaign.  In 1992, however, Iowa had negligible importance as the Democratic candidates ceded the state to native son Sen. Tom Harkin.  All attention focused on New Hampshire, where expectations and interpretations were almost as important as the results themselves. 

As "starting block states," Iowa and New Hampshire receive a disproportionate amount of news coverage from the national and international media.  The best illustration of this is a map for the 1984 campaign put together by William C. Adams, a professor at the George Washington University, showing the sizes of states in proportion to the amount of primary campaign coverage they received.[7]  On Adams' map, New Hampshire, with a 1984 voting age population of just 772,000, was as big as the 19 westernmost states including California and Texas!  Unfortunately, by the time later primaries roll around, millions of voters find they have little say in the choice of the nominees.

See also:
Campaign Literature

1. See Robert D. Loevy.  1994.  The Flawed Path to the Presidency 1992: Unfairness and Inequality in the Presidential Selection Process.  Albany: State University Press of New York.  Highly recommended.

2. David S. Broder.  "There's a Better Way to Pick a President; Give the Choice Back to the Politicians."  Washington Post, April 8, 1992, page A23.

3. In the preface to Terry Michael. 1992.  "Democratic Party of the United States of America: A Guide to the 1992 Presidential Nominating Process."  Washington, DC: Democratic National Committee.

4. An excellent and very readable state-by-state description of both parties' 1992 delegate selection procedures can be found in the CQ special report "The First Hurrah: A 1992 Guide To the Nomination of the President." (September 7, 1991; Vol. 49, supplement to No. 36).

5. Terry Michael, page 4.

6. ibid, page 5.

7. In Gary R. Orren and Nelson W. Polsby.  1987.  Media and Momentum: The New Hampshire Primary and Nomination Politics.  Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers.  The map was based on campaign stories on ABC, CBS and NBC (seconds of airtime) and in the New York Times (column inches) from January to June 1984.