The Unique Rhetorical Situation
of the Presidential Primary
The scene was the Chubb Insurance Company in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 1988. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, a Republican candidate for president, was touring the company's offices with his wife, introducing himself to the secretaries, smiling and talking with each one personally. The author stood, observing, with half a dozen people from the media. As Haig walked over to the next desk, one secretary remarked: "I never vote for anyone I haven't met. I've met three of the candidates so far this year."1
The scene is again Manchester, New Hampshire, this time in February 1992. People are milling around in the Tsongas for President campaign headquarters on Elm Street, the main avenue of the city. Former Senator Tsongas has just given a rousing speech, and members of the crowd are waiting to meet him personally. One young man is there with his wife and two little daughters, one in a stroller. The author asks him if he has decided how to cast his primary vote. "We haven't decided," he replied. He explained that they had been walking up and down Elm Street, visiting different campaign headquarters. "We're shopping the candidates," he said.
The secretary waiting for the candidates to woo her directly and the man "shopping" to decide which candidate to "buy" had something in common. The philosophy expressed by these two voters is the central premise of the movement that created the presidential primary system over 90 years ago: that the voters should have the power to choose the presidential nominees directly. In 1996, Democrats in 32 states and Republicans in 40 states selected their parties' nominees in presidential pri