Pre-Primary in Election 2000
Russell D. Renka
Department of Political Science
January 26, 2000
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The "invisible primary" is defined as the early portion of an election cycle prior to the formal casting of state caucus or primary votes. For 2000, this period ended with the casting of Iowa's party caucus votes on the evening of 26 January 2000. The invisible primary has been important ever since the primary season became the dominant means of selecting the two major party candidates in 1972. Now it has become more than important; it is dominant. This paper illustrates that fact and suggests why this has come about.
It is not especially risky this January 26 to forecast that on 7 November 2000 the voters will choose either Democrat Al Gore or Republican George Bush as the new 43rd President of the United States. These two candidates were their respective party front-runners in the January 2000 invisible primary polls taken immediately before Iowa. Vice President Al Gore led former Senator Bill Bradley 59% to 30 % as the first choice among Democrats, while Governor George W. Bush had 63% to Senator John McCain's 18% as the Republicans' first choice (Gallup Poll Releases - Bush and Gore Maintain Leads for Their Party's Nomination. A similar question and sample showed Gore leading Bradley by a hefty 68% to 24% among self-identified Democrats, while Bush led McCain by a similar 69% to 17% among Republicans (Pew Center - January 2000 NII Report). Since 1980 every pre-Iowa poll leader except the self-destructive Democrat Gary Hart in 1988 went on to win his party's nomination (Dodenhoff and Goldstein 1998, 170-171). The record isn't likely to change this year.
During this time the candidate pool, timing of primaries,
and delegate selection rules, have all exhibited lots of variation.
Republicans consistently use winner-take-all rules to encourage early resolution
of the primary battle, while the Democrats have gradually moved to a single
standard of proportional allocation of delegates for votes earned by any
candidate over the minimum threshhold of 15% of the vote. The number of
primaries has swelled from the low 30s to low 40s among the 50 states. The
calendar has steadily become more front-loaded so that 2000 bears little
resemblance to 1980 (PS360
Links - Year 2000 Political Events Calendar). Candidate fields have
varied from an uncontested incumbent president, to contested ones, to
vice-presidents with some opposition, to wide-open fields of contenders such as
1980 Republicans and 1992 Democrats. No matter. Front-runners are
decided in the invisible primary, and they win.
In 1976 the little-known former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter pulled a major surprise by winning Iowa's Democratic Party caucus and vaulting into contention over better-regarded challengers. In 1980 George Bush defeated Ronald Reagan in the GOP caucus, spoke of Big Mo, was soundly deflated in New Hampshire, but still showed enough vote-getting authority to nudge Reagan toward picking him as a running mate. Iowa pre-empted New Hampshire as the first nationally important state event. But its day in the sun is nearing an end. This year, Bush and Gore are expected to win there, and I see no reasons why they would not. Nonetheless, Iowa contributes relatively little toward the ultimate march of front-runners to party nominations.
Lessons of the Recent Past
The year 1976 taught lessons to election strategists in both parties. The Republicans had an incumbent President Gerald Ford, favored by the overwhelming majority of high GOP office holders. He narrowly won the nomination that year after a late surge in primaries by challenger Ronald Reagan, who won Texas by a stunning margin and then swept Ford in numerous other southern and western states representing the vanguard of emergent social conservatism in that party. The Democrats had a crowded field in anticipation of returning to the White House. Jimmy Carter was the unexpected victor after pulling a "stealth victory" from the Iowa caucuses following months of quiet and thorough preparation in that state. Both parties found themselves with a new selection process that was volatile and unpredictable. Both set about making it far less so.
This could not be done by going back. The 1968 Democratic National Convention blood letting in Chicago ensured that. The legitimacy of a system led by political bosses commanding blocs of obedient state delegates was shattered. The primaries were a permanent change, no matter that many senior political scientists lamented their onset.
The alternative is to find a way to pick a favored person in advance and line up early and forcefully on his behalf. One way to do that is simply to create an entitlement ladder. The incumbent President is always first. Not once this century has a sitting president been denied nomination by his party for a second term. If he is term-limited by Amendment XXII of the U.S. Constitution, then his Vice-President assumes the mantle. Sitting Presidents naturally support this under the primary system, because ever since 1968 the party's primary winner has had carte blanche to select his own running mate under the constraint that said person must have sufficient stature to be President (in other words, no more Spiro Agnew!). Term-limited President Reagan gave full support to Vice-President George Bush over Robert Dole in 1988, and President Clinton obviously is doing the same for Albert Gore in 2000. Should the party have neither of these but hold a congressional majority, then the top party leadership posts in Congress assume precedence (Majority Leader of the Senate and Speaker of the House). If all those are lacking or their occupants are patently unsuitable (Gingrich, for example), the strategists go afield to state governors, other Members of Congress, and private sector luminaries.
The object is always the same: to win
in November, by picking a good candidate early, ensuring that they have all the
resources necessary, getting through the unavoidable primaries hurdle as quickly
and easily as possible, and marshalling all resources for summer and fall.
If this seems obvious, remember that it is difficult to pull off. First,
it is hard to predict the campaign performance and attractiveness of the chosen
one. Second, unexpected problems such as Gary Hart's social life on the
side might derail the best-laid plans. Third, primary activists get
excited about ideologically new or novel candidates who may have little chance
to win and bear much potential for harming the general election coalition (for
example, Jesse Jackson among Democrats and Patrick Buchanan among
Republicans). It was not obvious to party leaders in the 1970s and 1980s
that any advance selection of a front-runner would succeed in the new system.
Why the Invisible Primary is Dominant
The election calendar came to their rescue. The
dominant position among primaries in the 1960s was last, since that was
most likely to carry a decisive impact and convert into maximum leverage for the
delegation in the summer nominating convention. California adopted this
strategy, placing itself in the first week of June at the end of primary
season. But there were only 15 primaries in 1968, which selected few
delegates and saw Hubert Humphrey win the Democratic nomination despite not
winning a single state primary. That changed permanently as rapid
proliferation of primaries in the 1970s mandated that a nominee would be
selected long before California, which repeatedly saw itself ignored while New
Hampshire, Iowa, the southern states in the 1988 March "Super
Tuesday," and other opportunist front seat holders enjoyed all the benefits
of the new system. The dominant position was either first, or as
close to the front as possible. Furthermore, there was clustering in the
early weeks. The chief beneficiaries of the southern state Super Tuesday
were the big two, Texas and Florida. That's where the candidates spent
most time and effort.
Clustering took on a new look in the 2000 calendar. See, for example, the March 7 concentration known as "Titanic Tuesday" with dominant players California on the left coast and New York on the right (at FEC's 2000 Presidential and Congressional Primary Dates in Chronological Order; or at The Rest of the Primaries). Eleven states make their choice then, and by day's end over half the delegates of each party will be selected (with practically all of them "pledged" to a first-ballot vote for their candidate at the national convention). This is a new development. Its onset was long foreseen, partly because the coastal states had a joint interest in blunting the conservative South's influence via the de facto regional primary of Super Tuesday.
This development gave each party little choice but to find and fund a favorite long before the Iowa and New Hampshire season began. The Democrats had a natural choice via the above-mentioned entitlement ladder. The Republicans recognized this, and had the doubly bitter experience of watching their March 1996 winner Robert Dole endure a painful beating from Patrick Buchanan in early primaries while emerging shorn of public funding as the lavishly funded White House campaign operation ran soft money "issue advertising" that repeatedly hammered Dole all the way to the national convention in mid-summer. This they could not allow to recur, and they did not. They instead looked at the congressional leadership, found it unstable and undignified (Gingrich in particular), and dipped into their deep stock of attractive state governors elected in the 1994 sweep. And then they made certain, absolutely certain, that he would have enough money to run an election campaign as soon he won the primaries. The national media took due notice, designated George W. Bush the front runner, and helped ensure that he, along with Vice President Al Gore, will face the voters on 7 November 2000.
Dodenhoff, David and Ken Goldstein.
1997. Resources, Racehorses, and Rules: Nominations in the
1990s. In L. Sandy Maisel, The Parties Respond: Changes in
American Parties and Campaigns, 3d ed., pp. 170-201.
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