Primary Paradox

Dr. Malcolm Cross

By winning last week’s primaries, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump were able to win enough delegates to clinch their respective parties’ nominations.  Their conventions, in formally renominating them, will simply rubber-stamp the primaries’ results.  But though Biden and Trump each triumphed over minimal opposition, roughly 75% of the American people polled say they dislike the idea of a rematch.  So how could the will of the public be so badly thwarted?  Primaries.

The paradox of primaries is this:  Primaries were created to make the process by which we nominate candidates for office more democratic.  Yet the results seem to fall short of the intentions, since in reality, they’ve made the nomination process more expensive instead.

Throughout most of the 1800s parties’ candidates for public office were selected by conventions.  Progressive reformers, however, thought that nominating conventions were too dominated by party bosses who selected the delegates and told them whom to nominate.  The reformers said that officials selected by boss-nominated conventions were more likely, once elected, to make decisions to benefit the bosses rather than the public.  For example, appointed officials were selected on the basis of party loyalty, not merit.  Contracts to supply goods and services to the government were likewise awarded to those most loyal to the dominant party, rather than to the most honest and competent.  And government officials and contractors were expected to kick back part of their salaries and profits to their respective parties.  Some of the profits made by the bosses and their organizations were used to supply welfare services to those who might vote for them, but much of the profit simply enriched the parties and their bosses.  And all the profit was made at the expense of the taxpayers, who had to pay higher taxes to finance the inflated salaries and contractors’ fees, and the excessive profits generated thereby.

Reforms pushed by the Progressives included nonpartisan elections for local government boards, systematic budgeting, the creation of a civil service in which personnel decisions were based on merit rather than politics, competitive bidding for contracts to do business with government, and, most relevantly, primary elections for nominating parties’ candidates for offices to be filled by partisan elections. The Progressives said that if elected officials owed their nominations not to party bosses but to the voting public, they’d be more concerned with the welfare of the people rather than that of the parties.

In 1912 a few states began to adopt presidential primaries, in which the voters could select delegates to the national nominating conventions or at least express their support for presidential candidates, but over the next half century or so most states still used state conventions to select national convention delegates, with little or no input from primaries.  Some presidential candidates, such as John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Richard Nixon in 1968, would run in primaries to demonstrate their electability, but nobody could amass enough delegates from primaries alone to win a presidential nomination.  Indeed, in 1968 Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic presidential nomination without entering a single primary or winning a single vote or delegate thereby.

But Humphrey’s primary-less victory at the 1968 Democratic National Convention so enraged elements within the Democratic Party that they successfully demanded reforms in the delegate selection process to make it more democratic.  By 1972 most states had created primaries and caucuses to make it almost impossible for a candidate for the Democratic or Republican presidential nomination to achieve victory without entering them.

But while the intention of the reformers was to make the presidential nomination process more democratic, the result was to make it more expensive.  To date, nobody has been able to win the nomination of his party for president without amassing the millions of dollars necessary to contest the large number of primaries which he must enter and win to earn enough delegates.  As a general rule, whoever has amassed the most money by the date of the first primary will win the nomination.

And for the 2024 presidential primary contests, nobody has been able to come close to raising the funds to match the campaign war chests of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.  Biden has all the resources available to an incumbent president of the United States, while Trump has his own fortune as well as the inflexible support of millions of MAGA Republicans whose devotion to him only increases with each impeachment, civil judgment, and criminal indictment he accumulates.  Besides, big-ticket donors who finance the PACs and Super PACs love to be with winners.  The more money Biden and Trump raked in, the more probable each would win his respective party’s nomination, which in turn attracted more money from donors, and so forth.

So however much the public dislikes the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch, the rematch is the logical outcome of a nomination system created to promote democracy, yet which discriminates in favor of those with the most money to actually run in primaries, regardless of their popularity (or lack thereof) with the voters.  Can anything be done to change the system?  Perhaps.  We’ll look at some possibilities in a future column.  But for the time being, we’re stuck with the present system.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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