Nominating Presidential Candidates: The Primary Season Compared to Two Alternatives

By Cooper, Alexandra L. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Nominating Presidential Candidates: The Primary Season Compared to Two Alternatives


Cooper, Alexandra L., Political Research Quarterly


Study of the impact of the McGovern-Fraser reforms on presidential nominations, though extensive, has focused largely on (1) the effects of reduced control by party leaders, and (2) the nature of inputs including votes, media, and money Despite the unusual practice of holding separate contests in multiple states to select a single nominee, little research explicitly addresses how such sequential contests function to transmit voters' preferences. I use computer simulations to tackle this seemingly intractable question and compare the results of a primary season to two alternatives, a single national primary and a national primary followed by a runoff. Using first a uniform distribution of voter preferences and then a distribution based on ANES data, I explore the impact different decision rules have on (1) a party's ability to satisfy its own voters' preferences, and (2) its competitiveness in the general election. I find that, on average, the primary season does better both at estimating party voters preferences and at selecting candidates nearer the general electorate median. A primary followed by a runoff yields results close to those for the primary season, whereas a single primary generates results not dissimilar to those created by random selection. I conclude with a discussion of the implications of these findings for the system used to nominate presidential candidates.

"The whole environment of politics had come apart, I mean had become polluted and destroyed and violent and bad and I tried to put it together."

-Former Presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, reflecting on his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 (cited in Farber 1988: 204).

The events at and around the Democratic national convention of 1968 left the party in disarray, unable to support its nominee and divided over matters of both substance and procedure. The 1968 convention was disastrous for the Democrats, as much because of the demonstrations and violent police responses outside the convention hall as because of the convention itself. What took place in Chicago went well beyond party leaders' ignoring one candidate (McCarthy) who could claim to have demonstrated his appeal to voters in the primaries and nominating another (Humphrey) who had not entered a single primary, but disgust with the nomination process was an important part of what happened. Historian David Farber writes, ". . . [The events in] Chicago [at the time of the 1968 Democratic convention were] ... not at all simply about America's involvement in Vietnam. The conflict was over how the American political system worked" (Farber 1988, x; emphasis added). That conflict was not limited to the convention proceedings, but certainly included them.

The 1968 Democratic convention and the protests and demonstrations that accompanied it shocked the nation. In response, convention delegates created two commissions that permanently altered presidential nominations. One of these, the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection (generally known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission after its chairmen), was created to recommend changes in nominating practices.

Among the problems at the 1968 convention was the perception that the nomination process was undemocratic. Without going into the details of the McGovern-Fraser Commission's recommendations, suffice it to say that both the intent and the outcome of these recommendations-which were widely implemented, in many cases by both parties1-have been to democratize inputs into the nominations process.2 The reforms opened the nomination process to popular participation while ensuring that the results of primary elections be binding on delegates. Although one can debate the extent to which the current nomination process is democratic (see Ceaser 1983: 10-11),3 it is unequivocally the most democratic system this country has ever used to nominate presidential candidates.

That the reforms dramatically democratized inputs into the nomination process is indisputable (Polsby 1983). …

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