Tough Primary Battles Forge More Resilient Nominees
A national primary would kill the American dream that any boy or girl can grow up to be president
March 9, 2012
I agree with former first lady Barbara Bush that we are probably witnessing the worst presidential primary campaign ever, but that is no reason to embrace a national primary. Our traditional caucus/primary process is often messy and unpredictable, but there is no question it produces stronger nominees. Almost 200 years ago, Andrew Jackson engineered the first national convention to take selection of nominees away from Washington insiders. A national primary would give it back to them, weakening the role of ordinary voters and the states.
A national primary, no matter how structured or scheduled, would kill the American dream that any boy or girl can grow up to be president. Only well-known, wealthy candidates would ever get on the ballot, dooming us to a never-ending line of anointed nominees. A primary calendar spanning months gives lesser-known, underfunded candidates a chance to grow their campaigns and hone their messages. As Jimmy Carter proved, one can start in a couple of states and end up in the White House. In the current process, the presidential aspirants must interact with voters and elected officials from coast to coast, learning invaluable things about our country, and themselves.
The Iowa and New Hampshire political landscapes are littered with the wreckage of candidates past who looked great on paper but were never able to get off the ground (John Glenn in 1984, Phil Gram in 1996, and Fred Thompson in 2008). Without the winnowing process of the early states followed by the later, delegate-rich big state contests, a party could easily select a nominee based on name recognition, good looks, and great ads who then flops on the national stage in the general election. With a national primary, a lesser-known candidate with a powerful message like anti-Vietnam War crusader Gene McCarthy, who upended a sitting President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, would simply not be possible.
A national primary would render minority voters, interest groups, and regional concerns less important while elevating the status of political consultants, advertising gurus, and super PACs. Does a tarmac rally in Atlanta look any different from one in Seattle? Forget about candidates actually meeting voters in diners or factories, as big events are all you would see.
President Clinton is fond of saying that the New Hampshire primary is less important for what the voters learn from the candidates than for what the candidates learn from the voters. He will be the first to tell you that a long, tough primary battle forges a better, more resilient nominee, and made him a better president. Isn't that what this all about?