Why Primaries Matter

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Next year, when you're thinking about not voting in the presidential primaries, remember Warren G. Harding. In 1920 Harding was every Republican's second choice for President of the United States. An unremarkable, one-term senator from Ohio, Harding had little experience and no bold ideas, which made him the perfect nominee that year. When the G.O.P. held its June convention, delegates were hopelessly deadlocked after nine ballots between three candidates, none of whom were Harding. They adjourned for the day and the party's power brokers met in smoke-filled back rooms. They couldn't agree on any of the three candidates either, but all thought Harding was a good second choice. The next day the delegates voted overwhelmingly for Harding and a committee was dispatched to Ohio to tell him; he hadn't even been considering a run for the highest office in the land. But the surprised nominee went on to win in November and to this day is known as one of the least-qualified men ever to sit in the Oval office. Many historians think his greatest accomplishment was dying halfway through his term.

Primary voters may make some odd decisions, but they never nominated Harding. Sure, 60% voted for him in the general election, but if they hadn't been forced to choose between two dismal candidates nominated in back rooms (the Democratic nominee in 1920 was picked in the same fashion), they might have elected someone more competent. Despite history's lessons, however, several state governments are currently debating if they should cancel their 2004 presidential primaries in an effort to save money during the current budget crises. Legislatures in Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, Utah, Arizona and Colorado have either voted to end the primaries or are considering doing so. At a time when many Americans feel disconnected from politics and complain that their votes don't matter, these lawmakers seem intent on proving them right.

Killing the primaries is certainly an attractive option dollars-and-cents-wise when state governments are grappling with the worst budget problems since World War II. Canceling them won't save much — $3.7 million in Missouri; just $600,000 in Utah — but it saves some cash for education programs or Medicaid. There's also a subtle political calculus here: Most of the legislatures considering this move are controlled by Republicans, and G.O.P. legislators know who their Presidential nominee is going to be in 2004, so why pay for the Democrats' primaries? If the primaries are killed in these states, the parties will use caucuses or state conventions to decide which candidate's delegates will go to the national convention. But the problems inherent in caucuses and conventions are what originally spurred states to start holding primaries.

Nothing in the constitution suggests primaries should be held to choose presidential nominees; after all, the founding fathers never expected political parties. But the two party system we've come to love and hate developed fairly early in American history, and for many years parties simply used caucuses or conventions to choose nominees. That often led to messes like Harding's nomination, but in the days before televised debates and campaign ads, most voters figured party insiders knew the nominees and had a better sense of their qualifications. People trusted their parties.

In the 20th century, primaries gained support as that trust dissolved. In 1968, the Democrats had a mess on their hands when Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for another term after almost losing to Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary. McCarthy gained momentum from his almost-upset, but then lost the spotlight when Robert Kennedy entered the race. Kennedy's assassination threw the nomination up for grabs, and that allowed Vice President Hubert Humphrey to snatch it at the tumultuous summer convention in Chicago, even though he hadn't entered a single primary. After that fiasco — and after Humphrey displayed his skills by losing to Richard Nixon — Americans started to clamor for more of a direct voice in choosing nominees. In 1960, seven states held primaries; by 1996, 46 states did.

Primaries are not without their drawbacks. Most elections aren't like 1968. Because no state wants to be holding their primaries after all the other states have picked a candidate, states increasingly schedule their primaries all in a tight two-month period that starts in January. That means the process is contracting into what's very nearly a second national election day. Candidates don't have time to go door to door in all those states, so they pick key targets and flood them with campaign ads. Once an obvious leader emerges many people don't see the point of voting — the nomination is already locked up. Party bosses don't mind this compressed schedule because it often favors the party favorite. In 2000, most Republican candidates dropped out of the race before a single primary vote was cast because they couldn't compete with George W. Bush's name recognition and huge war chest with so little time to campaign.

John McCain's run in 2000 proved that primaries still have value. After beating Bush in New Hampshire, McCain gave him a two month run for his money. Bush had to prove he wasn't just a famous name. Most Americans feel that the current primary system gives them little say in the nomination process, and yet, the states trying to eliminate the primaries are giving them even less say. If the parties get to go back into the smoke-filled rooms and nominate more Hardings, how many voters are actually going to turn up for the general election?