TOPICS > Politics

Rethinking the Rules

March 29, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


SEN. ROBERT DOLE, Republican Presidential Candidate: I’m so confident I’m going to declare right now that I am the Republican Nominee. (applause and cheers)

MARGARET WARNER: That was Sen. Bob Dole earlier this week, even before the polls had closed in California, the country’s largest state. Last year, California, which traditionally held its primary in June, decided it was tired of being irrelevant in the Presidential selection process, so it moved up its primary from June to March, yet, by the time the 1996 California contest rolled around this week, Dole had already won all the delegates he needed. California was just as irrelevant as ever. What happened? Blame the law of unintended consequences.

SEN. PHIL GRAMM: All right. I see our bus.

MARGARET WARNER: The primary season started conventionally enough. The Iowa caucuses came first in mid February. Dole won but by a disappointing margin. Eight days later, following long-time custom, came New Hampshire. The field of candidates in both states was large and the media coverage intense.

PAT BUCHANAN, Republican Presidential Candidate: (Singing with crowd) God bless America–

MARGARET WARNER: Dole lost New Hampshire to upstart Buchanan. But then suddenly with the arrival of March, the political calendar dramatically compressed. Many states, it seemed, had had the same idea as California. The result was a month of tightly-clustered, rapid-fire contests, and candidates dropping out nearly as quickly. March 2nd, South Carolina, 37 delegates, Dole wins; March 5th, Junior Tuesday, 10 states, 259 delegates, Dole wins in all states. That same week several candidates dropped out, including Sen. Dick Lugar and Lamar Alexander. March 7th, New York, 102 delegates, Dole wins. March 12th, Super Tuesday, seven states, three hundred and sixty-two delegates, Dole carries all seven states. That week Steve Forbes drops out. Buchanan is now the only major challenger left against Dole. March 19th, four Midwestern states, two hundred and nineteen delegates, Dole wins everywhere, boosting his delegate count over the nine hundred and ninety-six he needs for nomination. Dole’s victory came not a moment too soon for him, since he was dangerously close to the primary spending limit imposed on candidates who accept federal funds. Now, with Dole’s nomination assured sooner than any other candidate in recent history, come calls for reforming the process once again.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me first assure our viewers that we do know how to spell primaries. Now, three views on the primary process, and whether it needs to be changed. They come from former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, who, as we just saw, dropped out of the Presidential race after the March 5th primaries; Republican Senator Slade Gorton of Washington State, who has introduced legislation to overhaul the present system; and Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who is co-chairman of the Dole campaign. Welcome, gentlemen. Sen. Gorton, what is wrong with the current process?

SEN. SLADE GORTON, (R) Washington: Three things, Margaret. First, as William Safire said in his column in the “New York Times” yesterday, the present system has become a parody in an election campaign, more television cameras and reporters than there are people to listen to the candidates as they go through New Hampshire or Iowa. Second, the tremendous and unfair advantage it gives to an unqualified candidate like Steve Forbes, with a huge amount of money, to concentrate his negative advertising in just one or two states and tear down the front-runners. At the same time, we disadvantage the second- and third-tier candidates, ones who if it were spread out a little bit more might have a better opportunity of getting their voices heard. But overwhelmingly, the reason the present system is wrong is that it denies 95 percent of the American people any effective say or voice in who is going to be nominated by the respective parties for President. This is the antithesis of the American system. Everyone who is interested should have a roughly equal opportunity to participate. Now, the important participation takes place in a tiny handful of states, and they’re the same states every election campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Gregg, you’re from one of those states, New Hampshire. How would you–what kind of a report card would you give the current system?

SEN. JUDD GREGG, (R) New Hampshire: Well, I think as far as New Hampshire and Iowa are concerned, it’s pretty darned good, especially if you look at the track record–a little disappointed in Slade’s bill, because obviously it would eliminate the chance for candidates to come forward in small states and have a chance to participate. What you need is a, is a place where people who aren’t anointed by the national press, who don’t have a lot of money, can begin their campaigns in an environment where they have a chance to compete, and that requires that you have a small state atmosphere. The concept that Steve Forbes came forward and tried to buy these elections was rejected in New Hampshire, for example, where he did rather poorly, and the concept that the media has dominated these small states is also inaccurate because you had a situation where at least in New Hampshire, folks who were not anointed by the national media did rather well, they campaigned very hard. In fact, the people who spent the most time in New Hampshire going out and meeting people and delivering their message did the best. So we think–or I happen to feel, and I think a lot of people from New Hampshire feel, and a lot of people from across the country feel that you need a place where people can keep alive this hope that anyone can grow up to be President. And to do that, to keep a glimmer of hope alive in that area, you’ve got to have someplace where people who aren’t anointed and who aren’t chosen can go out and campaign and the New Hampshire people like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and George Bush in 1980, made himself competitive, have a chance to move forward and get the spotlight and participate, whereas if they had to go to a regional primary, they wouldn’t have the money to do it, they wouldn’t have the identity to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain to us, Sen. Gorton, your bill, your proposal for changing this process?

SEN. GORTON: It’s very simple. New Hampshire likes being a surrogate for the rest of the nation. People in the rest of the nation would like to do it themselves, not through a surrogate. And so my system says that in each Presidential election year you would have four primary dates, the first Tuesday in March, April, May, and June. Each one would have either twelve or thirteen states in the same part of the country; the East, the South, the Midwest, and the West. And in one Presidential election, the East would go first, and the next Presidential election, the South would go first, then the Midwest, and then the West. So every 16 years, each of these regions would have the opportunity to be the first to get the greatest degree of attention.

MARGARET WARNER: But you wouldn’t let any of these small states like New Hampshire just go it alone?

SEN. GORTON: No, you wouldn’t let anyone go it alone. We’re pushing the, the envelope way up to the beginning at this point. We even had the spectacle of the governor of New Hampshire threatening candidates who went to Delaware and made a big thing out of going to Delaware, that, you know, they would be hurt in New Hampshire as a result of it. It’s time for all of the people of the United States to have a chance to say who their nominees ought to be.

SEN. GREGG: Well, I’ve got to respond to that. You know, I’m very disappointed in Slade, because here he is, a graduate of Dartmouth–(laughter)–I don’t think he learned his lessons. Obviously he didn’t go to classes. But the fact is if you take out the little states starting this process off, what you’re turning it over to is the national pollsters. And then you’re talking about a really unrepresentative event, because you’re talking about a thousand people being polled and then the country gets told what the position is. Well, at least in New Hampshire you’ve got 200,000 people who go to the polls, and, in fact, 80 percent of the voters going to the polls and actually voting and participating in the process.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get in the person who has gone through this process recently, Gov. Alexander. Give us your critique of the process and what you think of some of these proposed changes, Governor.

LAMAR ALEXANDER, Former Republican Presidential Candidate: (Nashville) Well, the process needs to be changed. Now let me say right off the bat I think Sen. Dole would have been the favorite in any process we cooked up this year, and he ran a very effective campaign, which is why I’m back in Nashville and not, not somewhere else. But here’s what we ought to do. First, change the spending and fund-raising limits, because that really forces those of us who don’t spend our own money to spend all of our time raising money. And it makes it impossible or very difficult for us to compete with those who are permitted to spend their own money.

MARGARET WARNER: And by that, let me–let me just clarify–you mean, first of all, there’s a one thousand per person contribution limit?

GOV. ALEXANDER: Yes, individuals can give $1,000, and that sounds like a good thing when you start, but the net effect of that was to require me in 1995, because I wasn’t very well known and didn’t have my own money to spend, I went to 250 fund-raisers. I met a lot of very nice people who could give me $1,000, but that’s about 1 percent of the people in America. I would be a better candidate and a better President if I’d had a chance to spend more time with other people. Then the second thing to do would be to spread the primaries out. I think Sen. Gorton is partly right, but the problem is not Iowa and New Hampshire, that’s actually very helpful to give the country a chance to, to actually meet a governor, for example, who they might not have met before. We’ve had 17 Presidents who’ve been governors, not very many senators, and those states give someone a chance to walk across New Hampshire as I did, go to Iowa 80 times as I did. The problem is after New Hampshire, it’s all scrunched up, so let Iowa and New Hampshire stay in February and then let’s take Sen. Gorton’s idea, and go each month on the second Tuesday, and let’s have regional primaries. If we’d done that this year, out of New Hampshire we would have had Pat Buchanan winning, Senator Dole second, I was coming up, and Mr. Forbes was following. Then we would have had about three weeks to go to these eight other states and make our cases, and more people could have participated. Then we go on to the next one. That would make a much better system. The objective should be more people running change the spending and fund-raising limits and more voters participate, spread it out over a longer period of time, but we don’t have to jump Iowa and New Hampshire in order to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me see if I can get some agreement here. Now, Sen. Gorton, could you go for this idea that Gov. Alexander’s proposed, save Iowa and New Hampshire as special cases, but then go to these spread out regional primaries?

SEN. GORTON: Almost any change would be a change for the better because they are too telescoped at the present time, uh, and so I suppose it would be a 10 or 20 percent improvement to do it that way. If there had been several weeks after Iowa and New Hampshire before the next set of states voted, it would have given the candidates a chance to catch their breath, perhaps raise a little bit more money, and go ahead. But I still don’t understand in a system like ours why two states should get a privilege that’s denied permanently to every other state. I think that if, now–if Lamar Alexander said we’ll pick two particular states every election year and there will be two different states, even if they’re two fairly small states, just so that everyone gets an equal opportunity, fine, but to say it’s always forever to be Iowa and New Hampshire, what’s so special about them? I did go to Dartmouth but I picked a better state later.

MARGARET WARNER: What about his idea? Two small states, but they change. You’re both in the same party. I’m amazed. Could you go for that idea? What if it was two small states, but they did rotate?

SEN. GREGG: Well, I don’t see any reason to rotate. The fact is that New Hampshire has consistently been correct in this process, and it has been a fair arbiter of this process. Basically what happens is–

SEN. GORTON: Didn’t do much of a job this year.

SEN. GREGG: –people going into Iowa–well, if you were for Buchanan, people think it did–but people going into Iowa, and there’s a large group going into Iowa, and they come out of Iowa with two or three candidates that have some steam. Then they come to New Hampshire and the field gets narrowed a little but further so that when you get into the bigger states, you’ve got a contest between usually one–two or three people. And I think that’s the appropriate way to do it. But the issue goes back, if you take out New Hampshire and if you take out Iowa, to the fact that really as Gov. Alexander said, you can’t have a person who isn’t a national figure or who hasn’t been identified by the national press as a national figure be successful, so essentially what you’re saying is rather than having two little states participate in the process, you’re saying, well, let’s have ten or twelve hundred here in Washington pick the person, or some pollster pick the person, which I think is foolish.


MARGARET WARNER: Let’s explore this–

SEN. GORTON: We want to have the people pick the person.

SEN. GREGG: The people won’t have an opportunity.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s let Governor Alexander weigh in on this. Gov. Alexander, what about the idea of two small states but that they would rotate?

GOV. ALEXANDER: Well, that might be all right, but I don’t see anything wrong with Iowa and New Hampshire. They’re not the problem. It’s the–it’s letting everybody else participate. And the way you do that is just spread that out over a period of time. Let me give you one specific reason why it helps to have a reasonably sized state out front early. A week–a month before the New Hampshire primary, even though I walked across the state and spent a fair amount of money advertising, 40 percent of the people didn’t know my name. In the last week before the New Hampshire primary, when 2/3 of the people made up their minds, I actually won among those persons. So you need a reasonable size state if you want anyone other than an already-famous person or someone from Washington as the nominee. You need one or two states out front to let us all take a look at how they do. And if they do a poor job of picking, then we need to spread it out over three or four months and see if they have any staying power. That, that, I think, the Republican Party could agree on very easily.


GOV. ALEXANDER: Leave Iowa and New Hampshire where they are. Change the spending rules, so more people can participate, and then spread it out over a three-month or four-month period of time, and–

SEN. GREGG: You know New Hampshire is a great place to visit, having gone up there, yourself, a wonderful place to vacation, wonderful lakes, oceans.

SEN. GORTON: I think Lamar is probably right, and I rather imagine that Judd agrees with me on the absurd way in which we collect money for these at the present time.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about the money. How would you change it?

SEN. GORTON: Uh, I, I think Lamar Alexander is absolutely right. We set this $1,000 per person limitation what, 20 or more years ago. That just by inflation is 2500 or $3,000 now. If we just require people, the candidates to disclose where they got their money from, I think we can lift many of these limitations and Lamar Alexander is entirely correct. He would have been able to spend more time getting to know the voters, and less time having to go to a handful of people asking for $1,000 each.

SEN. GREGG: Well, you’ve got the additional problem that even though you have reasonable spending limits, for example, in New Hampshire, you’re supposed to spend only $600,000, and that’s a reasonable limit. You can run a decent campaign, and most people who are reliable can raise that amount of money to become effective candidates in New Hampshire. When you have someone step in like Steve Forbes did and throw $3 million into a New Hampshire election, it’s overwhelming. And I don’t know how we deal with that one, personal moneys used, in a Ross Perot-Steve Forbes situation.

MARGARET WARNER: And just to explain, he’s allowed to because it was his own personal money.

SEN. GREGG: Because–right, and, and you’ve–

MARGARET WARNER: He was not accepting federal funds.

SEN. GREGG: –got the freedom of speech issue that allows people to do that. But you’re seeing that in a lot of elections across the country today, where personal wealth is becoming the determinative factor, and I’m very concerned about that, but I’m not sure how in our constitutional structure of free speech we address that.

SEN. GORTON: Well, I’ll tell you how. One way you can do it is to lift the limitations on what the victims of that personal spending are.

SEN. GREGG: Give me a chance to respond.

SEN. GORTON: The second way is that if we’d have this regional primary and it had been 12 states in the East, Lamar Alexander could not have had that impact–excuse me–not Lamar–Steve Forbes–Steve Forbes–

SEN. GREGG: Lamar couldn’t have, because he wouldn’t have gotten by with it. You’re absolutely right.

SEN. GORTON: –couldn’t have had that impact. He would have been a lot less serious candidate.

SEN. GREGG: Well, Lamar wouldn’t have been able to walk the states involved there.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let me let Lamar Alexander back in here to speak for himself. What do you think, one, should be the new contribution limits, if any, or do you agree with Sen. Gorton, there shouldn’t be any, and should there be spending limits or no spending limits?

GOV. ALEXANDER: Well, I don’t think there should be spending limits. I think here’s what they could easily do this year, and this year would be the time to do it; abolish the PACS or reduce what they can spend, get rid of them. No. 2, raise the $1,000 limit on what you can contribute to a President or to a Senator running to $5,000 or some reasonable level. No. 3, take off the limits on what Presidential candidates–


GOV. ALEXANDER: –can spend in states.

MARGARET WARNER: –I’m sorry. We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.