Undemocratic Democrats: The Loser's guide to the primaries

David H. Sawyer

March 04, 1992|By David H. Sawyer

WELCOME to possibly the most undemocratic three weeks in the history of the Democratic Party.

In the midst of a recession, with a weak Republican in the White House, voters worry about the future and want to hear substance from the candidates in their home states. The problem is the primary election process.

The artificially front-loaded, compressed Democratic process, built around early Super Tuesdays, stifles debate. The process cheats the voters, candidates and party out of the dialogue needed to produce the best nominee. Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey are barely known in most media markets. Bill Clinton is known, but not for his record in office and stands on the issues.

For any candidate to campaign effectively in all these regions at once, he would need millions of dollars or months of time. With the exception of Governor Clinton, the field is broke, and the process restricts candidates to spending only a few hours in most of the 25 states.

Thus, most voters in, say, Tennessee, Texas and Michigan won't see Mr. Tsongas and Governor Clinton go head-to-head on economic policy. Senior citizens in Florida probably won't know as much as they should about how Senator Kerrey's health plan differs from those of the other candidates.

The front-loaded primary process was created in the early 1980s by national Democratic leaders and certain state party chairmen, particularly Southerners.

The national leaders sought to reduce to a minimum the weeks devoted to contested primaries and to give the eventual nominee maximum time to prepare for the fall campaign.

The theory was that less intraparty competition would favor the national establishment's well-known, well-funded candidates. State chairmen wanted to maximize their states' influence on the process, so they raced to move their primary dates up on the calendar.

In 1984 and 1988 the system gave the establishment the candidates it wanted (but the nation didn't): Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. The system hasn't really worked for the state chairmen either: When many states vote on the same day, none gets much individual attention.

The front-loading has magnified the worst elements of presidential politics. Money has become more important. Mr. Clinton's campaign may prove that winning the "money primary" among fund raisers has more impact than carrying New Hampshire.

Early front-runners have a tremendous advantage, which means more power for the media, party insiders and special-interest groups, because they create early front-runners. The field is frozen too early. Filing deadlines for states with almost 60 percent of convention delegates passed before anyone voted in New Hampshire this year. It's virtually impossible for new candidates to enter after the end of January even if the entire field stumbles.

Arbitrary regional advantages and disadvantages are magnified because Super Tuesday is focused on the South. Governor Clinton can pick up hundreds of early delegates simply by being a Southerner. Midwesterners such as Sen. Tom Harkin and Mr. Kerrey are more likely to be eliminated early simply because of where they're from.

Worst of all, the nominee can avoid being seriously challenged on issues and character by strong opponents. In 1976, before front-loading took hold, Jimmy Carter ran a five-month regional and ideological gantlet. In 1988, Michael Dukakis blanketed the Super Tuesday airways with commercials about the "Massachusetts miracle" for a few weeks, and he was assured of the nomination in March.

What champions of the system don't seem to understand is that the electorate will eventually always demand an in-depth dialogue with any unknown Democrat who expects to be president. And the Republicans and media are eager to facilitate this dialogue. An untested nominee will not go untested in the fall.

The system must be changed. First, we need more New Hampshires. Nearly everyone agrees that the state's primary basically works: The voters get to know the candidates and then make informed choices. The first six weeks or so of the campaign should feature other small- to medium-sized states, with only one or two states voting each week. These states could in effect serve as focus groups to narrow the field and sharpen the issues before Super Tuesday media campaigning must set in.

Second, primary dates in many large states should come in April and early May.

Third, the entire process must be based on regional balance, with rotating voting among regions during both early phases of the campaign.

Fourth, the filing process and deadlines in almost all states need radical reform. In this age of instant communications, it is ridiculous that any potential candidate must file 10,000 signatures from each of 34 congressional districts in early February for the April 7 New York primary.

These changes could go a long way toward creating real dialogue between candidates and voters. If the party continues to force candidates through a truncated primary season that prevents dialogue, we will continually risk paying a huge price in the fall.

Whatever the fate of this year's nominee, it is in the party's best interest to change the system. It's high time for the Democratic Party to rediscover democracy.

David H. Sawyer, chairman of the Sawyer Miller Group, a corporate communications consulting firm, is a Democratic campaign strategist.

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