February 25, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: The current nominating process for the major political
parties has evolved over time. Various reform movements have taken us
from smoke-filled back rooms to the present system of caucuses and primaries,
be they open or closed. Some background on how we got to this point
with NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin,
and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, at the beginning, Ray, they used to be done in caucuses. That was an old process that went back almost to the Mayflower. You would have groups of leaders in Congress who would choose nominees. Then around the time of Andrew Jackson, there was a feeling that there were too many secret deals so they began having party conventions where you had delegates that actually chose nominees on the convention floors. Often times you'd have at a convention-- something that seems antique today-- a nomination going to a second or a third ballot or even into the 100 or more ballots, which was the case in the 1920s with the Democrats. Then came 1968. There was a feeling that that convention system that didn't have very much involvement of primaries was unrepresentative. Two things happened. Hubert Humphrey was nominated that year without winning a single primary. Also, there was a plank that was passed on the Democratic Convention floor that supported the war in Vietnam at a time that there was a feeling that most Democrats that year were turning against the war. Something had to be done, it was thought, and the something was there was a commission that was formed-- McGovern-Fraser-- to begin reforming the process. That led to a process that is very much dominated by primaries that we see today. And this is something that I really lament. I wouldn't like to go back to the smoke-filled rooms entirely, but to have a system today which is almost totally dominated by primaries and worst of all front-loaded in a way that we're seeing where most of the delegates are selected within a period of about six weeks. That's something that I think does not do a good job of achieving presidential nominees.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, long before 1968, Haynes, we start to see primaries. Maybe they're not decisive about picking the nominee but they're still there, right?
HAYNES JOHNSON: The whole idea, as Michael said, is reform. They grew out of this notion in America right at the central part of the theme of our life as a country was we had to reform the process and open up to people with direct elections, power, money, corruption, union bosses, city bosses, all those things-- state and local-- so we got these primaries. And we began to get them in the progressive era. When I first got into the national politics-- that's 100 years ago, Michael, I think-- in 1960, there were 13 presidential primaries. We all thought that was Kennedy versus Nixon. This was way too much. It took you very tiresome. Then you went on in 1968, there were 17. Then there was 31. Then there's 35 and now there are 50 all over the united states, these primaries. That process was supposed to give the people the ultimate choice. But as Michael said, what you've had is this continual tension that the party structures want to control part of the structure themselves and have their own super delegates or people who are chosen that way. Now you have got this elongated process that cost enormous money. The reason we're spending the politics costs so much is this incredible amount, what it costs to run for the primaries: Advertising, piece by piece, huge amount. So you've now got where it takes a long time and it's also, it means to run you've got to have lots of money.
RAY SUAREZ: Doris, in the post-war decades, did the primary system as it was evolving allow people who wouldn't be the choice of the old gray heads and the party fathers to show that they're electable to travel to different regions of the country and show they know how to run for president?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It's true that John Kennedy in 1960 realized that the party bosses might not nominate him at a convention because he was Catholic and might not seem to be able to win. That's one reason why he entered those primaries with all that energy and force and proved it. Nixon had to use the primaries after he had lost in 1960 when he came back in '68 to prove that he wasn't a loser. So the primaries did provide that possibility. The interesting thing though when you look over the arc of the 20th century is that even though each time the reformers opened the system more and more and they said that was their goal to let more people into it, they also had political advantage in mind. For example, the progressives at the turn of the century - LeFallett was not allowed in the 1904 convention of the Republicans by the party leaders so he then went and had a direct primary legislation in Wisconsin. That's what led to the direct primaries. Suddenly there were 7 and suddenly there were 12. As Michael said, it was after Humphrey seems to have taken the nomination away in 1968 without being in any primaries that the liberals felt it wasn't fair. That led to the McGovern reform and more and more of these primaries. Then you had the southern Democratic conservative feeling we've been left out of this liberal north process so they created Super Tuesday as a way to let them have more power. Then the Republicans in the South looked at Super Tuesday and they're the ones that created this crossover possibility, because they wanted more people on both the Democratic and independent sides to vote in their primary hoping once they did, they'd stay Republican. So oftentimes these things they create come back to bite them in the end even if it's what they seem to think they want in the beginning.
RAY SUAREZ: You've been talking about two big changes in the nature of the calendar and how much they really, really matter. In reading up for today's talk, I read somebody remarking that in 1976 if the primaries had been front-loaded, Ronald Reagan would have disappeared after losing New Hampshire. Haynes, how much has front-loading changed everything?
HAYNES JOHNSON: It's changed a great deal. You can see right now as Michael said, we are going to have a March 7 first almost national primary really. 62% of the delegates can be chosen that one day. 62% means you can get the nomination if that's what it is. And so the system when you keep front-loading it... There's also something we haven't mentioned. The primaries now, the big states like California and New York were left behind by the early focus on things like New Hampshire or Iowa. And so there's been this movement up of the big states saying we want to be a part of the process to determine who is that nominee and not let it get stampeded by the attention of the media on that campaign. Now you see all these states coming up, March 7 and March 14, it will virtually be over by the amount of numbers of delegates that will be chosen.
RAY SUAREZ: Another thing that's been getting a lot of attention, Michael, is open primaries. Where do they come from?
MICHAEL GERHARDT: Well, it was the idea that you don't want to have a system that simply nominates candidates who are appealing to the intense activists of either party because the idea was if you do that, then you end up with perhaps a Democratic candidate who is too liberal to get easily elected or a conservative Republican who is too far to the right to get elected in the fall. But the best thing is to have a system that does all these things. Some open primaries, some closed primaries. And Haynes is so right about front-loading. You know, when you don't have a system that takes a long time, that takes six or seven months-- in other words, the kind of system that we had this year-- two things happen that are really bad: One is that you don't have the time to really scrutinize a candidate in a way that we all would want. Most Americans knew almost nothing about on the Republican side John McCain or George W. Bush before roughly, let's say, the end of January. Under the old system, you would have had seven months to take a very close look at them, see how they perform in various kinds of tests, almost going over an obstacle course. That's one thing. The other thing is that if you've got this front-loaded system and everyone assumes that everything is going to be over quickly, then you have a situation like South Carolina: These two candidates fighting to the death because they think that if one of them loses South Carolina, that's going to be the end of the race. Under the old system, the race would have gone on four or five or six more months, you wouldn't have had a situation like that.
RAY SUAREZ: But, Doris, if we've learned one thing, it's that both parties seem to be willing to tear up the system and rebuild it when it does, as you mentioned earlier, suit their purposes. Could we see that again two years from now?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, the hope is there are commissions on both the Republican and Democratic side looking at this crazy quilt we've created today. It doesn't make sense in some ways that unrepresentative small states are there first just because they've grabbed it first and then so much momentum comes from a state like New Hampshire or South Carolina. That's why the big states came in: We want our chance. That's created the front loading that Michael and Haynes rightly say is wrong. The best suggestion I've heard is that they said what you could really do is have a system where two small states go first because it's go to have an insurgent have a chance in a small state, retail politics but you decide who the two small states are not just by New Hampshire having primacy, but whoever voted the most in the previous election four years before -- the highest turnout among those small states. After those two small states you have a couple large states and then go back to small and then large, all based on who had voted the most. So you get some credit for turnout four years before. There's got to be a better system. I don't think it's working right the way it is now. The problem is, you're right, every time somebody gets an advantage, they say let's keep it the way it is. By the time they come around to changing it, we're already in the next cycle.
RAY SUAREZ: Doris, Haynes, Michael, good to see you all.