Do Primary Voters Draw from a Stacked Deck? Presidential Nominations in an Era of Candidate-Centered Campaigns

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Most observers of presidential nominations contend that the McGovern-Fraser Committee and other reforms of the early 1970s made the nomination process more democratic and open (Ranney 1975, 1977; Kirkpatrick 1978; Ceaser 1982; Polsby 1983; Lengle 1981; Shafer 1983; Crotty 1984). More candidates now compete in more primaries for the votes of more party members than during the prereform era (Asher 1984, 194). Most of these candidates, however, are not viable options for primary voters, and few have a realistic chance of winning a primary, much less the nomination. Indeed, since 1980 the front-runner in January has won the presidential nomination of one of the major political parties (Dodenhoff and Goldstein 1998, 170; Mayer 1996b; for an alternate view, see Buell 1996). Is the postreform presidential nomination process as open as is commonly claimed? This article argues that the contemporary presidential nomination system contains a paradox in which primary voters select among a larger number of candidates, yet which candidates have a realistic chance of winning the nomination is largely determined during the preprimary season.

Presidential nominations prior to 1972 involved little democratic input, since most delegates to the national nominating conventions were selected in caucuses dominated by party organizations. The conventional wisdom is that party bosses mediated the presidential nominations (Key 1964). That changed after the reforms of the early 1970s, as most convention delegates came to be selected in binding primaries (with varying degrees of participatory eligibility). Primary elections provided democratic procedural legitimization of the major political parties' presidential nominees. But if decisions made prior to the primaries structure the candidates' odds of winning in the primaries, then primary voters may in effect be selecting from a stacked deck. Thus, presidential nominations are more mediated than is commonly recognized. Party elites, campaign contributors, interest groups, and the media all play crucial mediating roles in the postreform presidential nominating process by conferring or denying the resources candidates need to compete for primary voters' support.

The various reforms of the early 1970s initially opened the presidential nominating process to lesser known and outsider candidates, but this openness was transient. The shift to open and binding primaries and the proliferation of candidate-centered campaigns to compete in those primaries changed the resources and strategies needed by candidates seeking a major party's presidential nomination. In the prereform era, a candidate's chances of becoming the nominee hinged on his or her ability to secure commitments from party bosses who would select delegates to the national convention. In the postreform era, candidates must appeal to large numbers of potential primary voters. Initially, the requirements of candidate-centered campaigns were sufficiently low to enable more presidential aspirants to compete, outside of party networks, for the support of potential primary voters. Over the past twenty years, however, the rising costs of candidate-centered campaigns, front loading, and more scrutinizing media coverage have combined to diminish the opportunities of dark-horse candidates seeking the presidential nomination of one of the major political parties. Poorly funded candidates are relatively less able to compete for primary votes as the costs of nominating campaigns have risen. Front loading of the primary schedule increased the importance of money raised prior to the primaries, since candidates lack the time to raise sufficient sums during the primary season. More critical news coverage makes it difficult for candidates to substitute the exposure of free media coverage for paid media advertising. Lesser known and outsider candidates can run, but their odds of winning the nomination have declined since the 1970s.

The number and viability of candidates are important elements of democratic elections. …