The Imperfect Primary: Oddities, Biases, and Strengths of U.S. Presidential Nomination Politics

The Imperfect Primary: Oddities, Biases, and Strengths of U.S. Presidential Nomination Politics

The Imperfect Primary: Oddities, Biases, and Strengths of U.S. Presidential Nomination Politics

The Imperfect Primary: Oddities, Biases, and Strengths of U.S. Presidential Nomination Politics


Recognized as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title in 2011!

Many people complain about the complex system used to nominate presidents. The system is hardly rational because it was never carefully planned. Because of the dissatisfaction over the idiosyncrasies of the current system, periodic calls arise to reform the presidential nomination process. But how are we to make sense of the myriad complexities in the system as well as in the calls for change?

In The Imperfect Primary, political scientist Barbara Norrander explores how presidential candidates are nominated, discusses past and current proposals for reform, and examines the possibility for more practical, incremental changes to the electoral rules. Norrander reminds us to be careful what we wish for--reforming the presidential nomination process is as complex as the current system. Through the modeling of empirical research to demonstrate how questions of biases can be systematically addressed, students can better see the advantages, disadvantages, and potential for unintended consequences in a whole host of reform proposals.


I came of voting age in 1972 just as primaries first came to dominate presidential nomination politics. In that year, George McGovern vied off against seven other Democrats to win convention delegates by winning primaries and caucuses. In 1976 Ronald Reagan almost unseated President Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee, while Jimmy Carter, an unknown former governor of Georgia, perfected momentum strategy. Presidential nomination politics settled down somewhat in the 1980s, but controversies still erupted over rules, strategies, and participants. No wonder I have been writing about presidential nomination politics ever since.

The 2008 presidential nominations once again brought a host of controversies to the forefront of public debate. The long battle between Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama led to questions over the influence of superdelegates, whether the Democratic Party’s use of proportional representation rules extended the nomination battle, and the role of caucuses. The Republican race more quickly came to a close, but the unfolding of the various candidates’ strategies juxtaposed with their party’s rules brought about this speedier conclusion. Many of the debates of 2008 echoed questions from previous election cycles, and these controversies have been addressed by existing political science research. For example, the effects of proportional representation versus winner-take-all rules were first investigated in connection with the 1972 nominations. The influence of superdelegates was initially explored for Walter Mondale’s 1984 nomination. The uniqueness of the caucuses has been studied over the past 20 years for the nature of the participants and the differences in their outcomes. Thus, the 2008 nominations brought up many questions, but political scientists often already had many answers to offer.

My goal in writing this book was to address the oddities, biases, and strengths of the presidential nomination system in place at the beginning of the 21st century. Yet I wanted to do so from the perspective of the similarities with presidential nominations from the last quarter of the 20th century. This meant the first chapter of the book needed to cover the everchanging presidential nomination process from the early 19th century to . . .

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