Third Party & Independents Archives

Early Primaries: Stop the Madness

Many Americans have forgotten, but it wasn’t so long ago that many of the delegates to the presidential nominating conventions were chosen— not in open primary elections, but by each state’s political insiders at caucuses and at local and state conventions in the spring of the election year.

In the 1970s, rising disgust with that process (and the presidential candidates it produced) led both parties to the current system, where the majority of delegates are chosen at open primaries, giving every American a voice in selecting the candidates.

When I was a teenager living in Wisconsin, our April primary was considered an "early" primary. It was exciting to be the center of attention as people like Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller and others came to our town to campaign.

Yes, New Hampshire always had the first primary. But back then, candidates saw it as a beauty contest and not a real test. The real contests were in New York and Florida. And California always had the final say with its June primary, just weeks before the conventions. Bobby Kennedy’s ill-fated nomination wasn’t sealed until the California contest in June, 1968.

South Dakota also held its primary in June. Few candidates ever came. After all, who would waste time, money and effort on South Dakota's 13 delegates when California's treasure chest was at stake the same day?

So, in the 1980s, South Dakota Republicans led an effort to gain influence and the money generated by candidate ads. They boldly moved their presidential primary up to the first week in March. Suddenly, the tiny state had a big say in picking the candidates. And they all came. I met and interviewed Vice President George H. Bush, Bob Dole, Bill Clinton and many others. My TV station raked in thousands of ad dollars. It was a great success.

But it was also a huge mistake. And it began a process that has now led to January 2008 contests in Florida, Nevada, South Carolina and Michigan. That’s in addition to the traditional early February primary in New Hampshire and the January Iowa caucuses. The threat by party leaders to disenfranchise delegates from Florida if they hold their primary before February 5 has had little impact, since the nominating conventions have become so meaningless. (Ironically, South Dakota, after years of presidential attention, has now moved its primary back to June, when other state contests are decided).

I attended both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1980. This was back when candidates were actually chosen at the conventions. I watched a suspenseful fight between Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole in Detroit. And a month later, the DNC in New York had an open contest between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy. This old schedule recognized that it’s difficult, if not impossible to get ordinary voters to focus on a presidential election five or six months before the fact. Now, we expect voters to watch debates and study candidate positions a year or more before the actual election. And we wonder why voter turnout drops year after year! Citizens who are not political activists simply get burned out with the nonstop campaigning.

It is understandable that political leaders in states like Nevada and Florida have gotten fed up with the notion that the contests for the nominations are all but over by the middle of February, leaving their citizens no voice in picking candidates. But if this “Me First” trend continues, we could well see some states holding primaries in December. And that does not serve anyone’s best interests.

Alice Travis Germond, the longtime secretary of the Democratic National Committee told the New York Times in September: “This process is still a mess. Eight years ago we said it was broken and getting broker. It’s now broker and getting more broker.”

A solution was proposed more than a decade ago that still makes sense today. It was a series of five or six regional primaries, beginning in late February that would allow candidates to campaign in one part of the U.S. at a time. The Northeastern states would go first (allowing New Hampshire to remain first in the nation), followed by a Midwest primary (including Iowa) the next week, a southeastern primary the week after that, and so on, ending in April or May. This system would give more citizens a real voice in the process and produce less burnout among voters. It would also be a lot cheaper for the candidates.

The National Association of Secretaries of State has a similar plan, but it would alternate who gets to go first:

In most other democratic countries, the time between the beginning and the end of the election process is no more than 6-8 weeks. By the time we elect a president in 2008, the process will have taken almost two years. It’s absurd and it needs to stop.

Posted by Dan Schillinger at October 1, 2007 5:04 AM
Comment #234543

There should only be ONE primary, the same for all states, just like the elections. Would solve all these problems and they have already done all the campaigning anyone can stand.

Posted by: womanmarine at September 27, 2007 11:23 AM
Comment #234961

One primary for the entire country, 4 weeks before the presidential election…no campaigning until 8 weeks before the primary…and real debates, not glorified news conferences with softball questions for the candidates.

Posted by: Rachel at October 1, 2007 4:38 PM
Comment #234963


That simply hands the power to decide who the president will be to the press. It’s easy to snow all of us for two months.

The same thing is true of a one-day primary for everyone. Only those with the most money will be capable of such a campaign. You guarantee only billionaires or those in the pockets of billionaires will have a chance.

The truncation of the presidential campaign is unambiguously bad.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at October 1, 2007 5:03 PM
Comment #234964

Dan, nice article and I am glad you wrote about it… I have written one or two on the subject of primaries as well.

One thing we tend to forget about primaries is that they are not general elections. We seem to be collectively thinking (there’s problem one right there!) that we have the right as citizens to decide who gets to run as a Democrat and who gets to run as a Republican, further entrenching these two parties as the only two that matter every presidential election cycle. It is even worse in states with ‘open’ primaries.

The answer? Let the parties, private organizations in and of themselves, decide how they want to nominate their candidates and take it out of the hands of the secretaries of state.

Posted by: Doug Langworthy at October 1, 2007 5:09 PM
Comment #234986

The LP determines their president at the national convention, non of this primary nonsense. The person they feel represents their principles the best is their nominee.

I believe the Green Party does the same thing.

What’s wrong with that idea?

Posted by: Rhinehold at October 1, 2007 11:50 PM
Comment #235018

Lets do away with primaries period. Yes only the rich will be able to travel state to state to campagin, but then again it is that way right now. Look at the amount of money and time those Senator/Reps are spending trying to be President instead of being in Washington working on bills and passing laws that are suppose to be for the good of all Americans not just a chosen rich few(can we say tax cut for the rich).
Go back to where after labor day, those declare they want to run for President and then start the race. Starting 2 to 2 1/2yrs before the election is a disservice to the American People, because they are elected to be a Senator or Rep, yet spend very little time in DC.

Posted by: KT at October 2, 2007 3:52 PM
Comment #235735

I say castrate all political parties. Worst invention of America, ever. They are nothing more than a substitute for voter education, involvement, and thinking.

Posted by: David R. Remer at October 10, 2007 2:29 AM
Post a comment