Primaries Make Voters Secondary

Matthew Dallek, who served as a speechwriter for Rep. Dick Gephardt from 1999-2002, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."

The Democratic presidential primary system has become a political relic. It distorts democracy and disenfranchises millions of Democrats. It should be replaced with either a national primary or, at the very least, rotating regional primary elections.

Yes, retail politics made a real difference in the Iowa caucuses. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry’s unexpected first-place showing sprang, in part, from solid performances in town halls, coffee shops, churches and schools. He took questions and listened to Iowans’ parochial worries. He paid tribute to the virtues of ethanol, while his competitors sang paeans to the family farm and Iowa’s famous loose-meat sandwiches.

As admirable as these democratic virtues are, just 22% of Iowa’s Democratic voters, or 6% of Iowa’s electorate, rearranged the Democratic presidential landscape when they caucused last week. About 125,000 Iowans effectively ended the political career of Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and possibly mortally wounded the candidacy of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, before tens of millions of registered Democrats even cast a vote. On Tuesday, chances are good that a sizable percentage of New Hampshire voters in the Democratic primary will further winnow the field. By Wednesday morning, one-half of 1% of the nation’s Democrats will have decisively shaped the race for the nomination.


Democratic insurgents created the current system after 1968 to eliminate the power of labor leaders, elected officials and party chiefs in picking the presidential nominee. The new primary process emphasized candidates, grass roots and voters. But it gave enormous clout and control to the first two states rating the candidates. Since its inception, no Democrat has won the nomination without finishing first or second in either Iowa or New Hampshire.

Many Democrats have felt left out, as Kenneth Baer, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, reveals in his book “Reinventing Democrats.” One of them was Al From, whose centrist Democratic Leadership Council was seeking a way, in 1987, to offset the dominance of Iowa and New Hampshire in the nomination process. “With all due respect,” he said, “I don’t think someone who lives in Dubuque should force a candidate to come flip pancakes in their kitchen four or five times in order to judge who should be president.”

Seventeen years later, From’s complaint has many echoes. This month, Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell lamented that Pennsylvania would have no influence over the nomination because his state’s primary is held in late April. He promised to work to move up the primary date in 2008, setting his state on a collision course with New Hampshire, which jealously guards its first-primary-in-the-nation status. And Rendell’s tactic is no guarantee. The primaries of two of the nation’s most populous states, California and New York, were moved to early March so they might influence the nomination choice, but that’s probably too late to have any impact in 2004.

A national primary day or rotating regional primaries would end this imbalance and strengthen democracy and the Democratic Party on at least three levels.

First, candidates with the widest appeal -- that is, competitive in every region of the country -- would enjoy a natural advantage. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark have staked their candidacies, in part, on the claim that they can go toe-to-toe with President Bush in the South, the GOP’s quadrennial stamping ground. A national primary day would put such claims to a stiff electoral test.

Candidates who can bridge ethnic, religious and regional gaps would be more likely to win the nomination under a national system, ensuring a stronger standard bearer in the fall. Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white and Protestant. In an age of increasing heterogeneity, the party should adopt a selection process that reflects this diversity.

Second, by spotlighting broader concerns, a national primary day would gird the party for the rigors of the general election. Flood relief, farm subsidies and ethanol would receive less attention; terrorism, crime, Medicare and tax reform more. In his State of the Union address, Bush tarred Democrats as soft on terrorism, a charge not easily rebutted when candidates are brawling over their commitment -- whose is greatest? -- to corn-based fuel. A national primary, by contrast, would give Democratic candidates better opportunities to repudiate such claims.

Third, and most crucial, primaries, held nationwide or regionally, would bring us closer to the goal of one person, one vote, the standard on which our democracy rests. For example, the vote of a registered Democrat in California may be virtually meaningless by the March 2 primary. By then, voters in other states may have already chosen, or predetermined, the nominee. A national vote would give Californians and millions of other voters real influence and restore their franchise.

Defenders of the current system no doubt would have objections. A national primary, they might argue, would reduce smaller states to irrelevancy. But under a national or regional system, more states and all regions would be participating in selecting the party’s nominee. Or they might say that national political conventions would become obsolete. But conventions have already lost their role as chooser of a presidential candidate. The post-1968 reforms ended the days of party bosses in smoke-filled rooms debating the pros and cons of each candidate, then deciding who would carry the party banner. A national primary would still enable conventions to serve as a platform for the candidate’s views, a showcase for the vice presidential nominee and an arena for the party and its candidates to define their politics and policies. The party’s message would still get out.

Critics might claim that Iowa and New Hampshire have special attributes that suit them for the vetting role: Iowa is rural and local, New Hampshire flinty, industrial and independent. But the salient demographic feature of America is economic, political and geographic diversity. No state can legitimately claim to speak for the interests of all.

Would a national primary preclude the rise of unknowns like Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Gary Hart in 1984? The short answer is no. The current primary system front-loads so many contests (seven states will hold primaries Feb. 3) that the days of more deliberate, less frenetic nomination fights are already over.

Still, this is the Internet age, in which unknowns can rise to be top contenders. Dean went from being an obscure former governor of a small New England state to Democratic frontrunner by using the Internet to solicit contributions and enlist supporters. He demonstrated that you don’t have to be a national figure to run a national campaign.

Furthermore, though he finished a disappointing third in Iowa, Dean still has enough money and volunteers to remain competitive after the New Hampshire primary. Even if he were short of cash, “free media” is so ubiquitous that underfunded candidates are able to wage coherent national campaigns on cable news, Clear Channel’s radio stations and shows like “Good Morning America.”

The Democratic Party should recapture the reform spirit that arose after 1968 and discard a political relic out of step with modern America.