The Presidential play-offs

In theory the primaries determine the two men who will fight for the championship, but mostly they decide who won’t

Walter Stewart April 5 1976
The Presidential play-offs

In theory the primaries determine the two men who will fight for the championship, but mostly they decide who won’t

Walter Stewart April 5 1976

In theory the primaries determine the two men who will fight for the championship, but mostly they decide who won’t

The Presidential play-offs

Walter Stewart

The man was slightly gassed. The blue eyes in a plump and pleasant face looked a little out of focus. The rumpled seersucker suit teetered gently with its owner on the barstool. Still, he was not so much drunk as puzzled. “What 1 want to know,” he asked anybody in general, “is what the hell does it all mean?” His fellow patrons of the Everglades Hotel in downtown Miami exchanged uneasy glances: he had us there.

It was midevening on March 9, and this man, it turned out, was celebrating. He had been a footslogger for Senator Henry Jackson in the Florida primary that had ended a few hours earlier. Nothing big: he had manned a phone for a few hours in a telephone canvass, attended some rallies, stuffed Jackson pamphlets under the windshield wipers of cars, and he had joined more exalted workers—precinct chairmen and other luminaries—in the reception upstairs to salute Jackson’s third place finish. But after a while, all those smiling faces, knowing nods, raised voices began to get to him—“What the Christ was all the fuss about? We ran third!”—and he wandered away, down to the Rogue Bar.

The man’s confusion was understandable: it was his first election, a middle-aged, middle-class bicentennial project—“Dumb, eh?”—the result of a feeling that he, an ordinary working stiff, should do more to celebrate his country’s 200th birthday than buy a spirit of’76 hamburger or drive over to the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach to see the Betsy Ross strip tease in the Boom-Boom Room (a girl stitches a flag out of her own clothes, giving patriotism and prurience a joint workout). So he phoned a number in the paper and went to work for Jackson. Why Jackson? Well, he seemed a centrist candidate, not a racist like George Wallace, but not soft on the Commies either, like some of those other dopes. For a registered Democrat, he thought, it was a choice between Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Scoop Jackson of Washington, and he went to Jackson because, at that point, Carter was an unknown, a glowing smile, a thatch of hair, and nothing more. Eater, when Carter got more press, he looked better, but as stodgy as Jackson.

The campaign had been kind of fun.

People would phone you up, ask you to do things, talk about “our boy” and what he was doing. After Jackson’s win in Massachusetts on March 2, there was real excitement: it began to look as if a guy could be part of the election of the President. Then came the primary in Florida. On the Democratic side, Carter ran first, which was a surprise. But never mind, the pols said, Carter spent a lot of time and money

here: he got a terrific press, so the win didn’t mean that much. Wallace came second, but that didn’t count either, because he had been expected to win. So, the Jackson workers were saying, our boy’s thirdplace finish was really a win: he had won in the industrial north and now had run well in the South. It would give him a boost for New York and even California, down the line. It kept the momentum going. But to an ordinary working stiff, this arcane stuff was hard to take. “Hell, third is third.” he kept saying, “Anybody can see that.”

In the Bible the first shall be last, but in the primary system that now dominates American Presidential politics, the first may be second or third—or some guy who didn’t run at all. Sometimes the primaries are crucial, sometimes they don't mean a thing, and what makes it really interesting is that nobody knows beforehand which is

which. A primary gets its importance from a feeling in the air, a general understanding that this time, in this place, the re. suits are important.

In 1952, President Harry Truman, who said the primaries were “eyewash,” dropped out of the race for reelection after Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee beat him in New Hampshire. Kefauver won 12 out of the 16 primaries on the Democratic ticket; then he was clobbered at the nominating convention by Adlai Stevenson, who hadn’t entered a single one. President Lyndon Johnson was forced out of the 1968 race because, while he won in New Hampshire, his margin over Eugene McCarthy was slimmer than “they” (the pollsters, wiseacres, professional politicians, national media) were expecting. McCarthy, in turn, was shoved aside by Hubert Humphrey who never went near New Hampshire. In 1972, the New Hampshire primary finished off Edmund Muskie: he won, but by a lesser margin than “they” expected. On the other hand, Eisenhower’s campaign in 1952 w as given its big boost by a Minnesota win over the party

that he, not Nelson Rockefeller, commanded the Republican centre.

Here we go again. The two top Democrats in conventional political wisdom are Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey: neither is entered in a single primary, but Humphrey is expected by many pundits to emerge with the party nomination in July. However, if Jimmy Carter, w ho is entered in the primaries, rolls up enough committed delegates, he could walk off with the prize. George Wallace of Alabama, who could wind up winning more primaries than any other candidate, is judged to have no chance at all for the nomination. But then neither has Birch Bayh of Indiana, because he fared badly in two

favorite, Robert Taft. John F. Kennedy was launched in I960 by his win over Humphrey in West Virginia, which was a big primary that year, and Richard Nixon used the primaries in 1972 to demonstrate

early votes. On the Republican side. Ronald Reagan could be given the bum’s rush in the next few weeks—indeed, his loss in Florida may have finished him already— while President Gerald Ford, a man of his word, said he would stay in the race no matter what happened in the primaries.

Sometimes, trying to gauge the effect of a primary makes as little sense as examining the entrails of a dead goat. In Illinois, Adlai Stevenson III became the instant primary favorite—though he announced repeatedly he was not running—after Democratic boss Richard Daley of Chicago stuck him on the ballot to preserve his (Daley’s) brokerage powers at the convention. The primary system is loony. Political writer Robert Bendiner commented 16 years ago that “These pick-and-choose contests, with variations in rules that would baffle a Philadelphia lawyer, serve largely to turn the pre-convention strategy into a combination of chess, poker and astrology—diverting, but not to be taken for political science.” Since Bendiner’s observation, the primaries have grown loonier. Imagine a race in which a dozen starters line up at different spots on the track, take off to the sound of different pistols, drop out when they feel like it, sometimes racing against each other and sometimes against the clock. The results are judged by a flock of bystanders who are more confused than the contestants, and the cup is awarded either to one of the racers or a stranger who never came near the track, depending.


It is easy to dismiss the primaries but, for a Canadian, not smart. After all, this strange system is what our dominating neighbor uses to select—or not—its leader. Our trade, our foreign policy and our economy are all, in a sense, hostage to the power and personality of the American President and thus, indirectly, to the primary system. If the primaries were to make Ronald Reagan President (now a long shot, but not impossible), we would be shackled to a man who turned in a passable

performance in Bedtime For Bonzo, and appears to be working up to the title role in Dr. Strangelove. The primaries have already made strong contenders out of Henry Jackson, a social liberal, fiscal conservative, and jut-jawed cold warrior, and of Jimmy Carter, a man who fades under scrutiny, like the Cheshire cat, until nothing is left behind but a foot-wide smile. So we can’t just sit in a corner and giggle, wait-

ing for the comedy to climax. The Canadian embassy in Washington has sent a political expert snooping around the primaries, and with good reason: part of our future is at stake.

But there is something else Canadians might consider. For sheer daffiness, the primary system contains more chuckles than the Canadian method of choosing political leaders solely through delegate conventions, but is it any dumber? For concentrated hysteria, the convention that elevated Pierre Elliott Trudeau to the leadership of the Liberal party in 1968 (and domination of Canadian politics ever since) knows few equals. For mystification, the Tory convention that recently gave us Joe Clark (and the burning question, “Who the hell is Joe Clark?”) was matchless. For manoeuvring, arm-twisting and heavy leaning, the convention that propelled Tommy Douglas to the leadership of the NDP at its founding convention in 1961 set a mark for others to aim at. (Hazen Argue, who defied the party brass in his run against Douglas, was clobbered on the first ballot. He was also subjected to bitter personal attacks, to which he replied in kind. He wound up a sore loser, a Liberal and a senator.) The Canadian system of choosing leaders has little to do with the popular will saluted from every platform. It used to be done by a cabal of party bosses meeting in a back room: now it’s done by a larger cabal of party hacks meeting under klieg lights. Most of the delegates are handpicked by the hierarchy. They seldom represent either the public at large or the general party membership. When, on occasion, democracy threatens to raise its tousled head, steps are taken.

Shortly before the Conservatives’ February leadership convention in Ottawa, Lise Bourque, president of a Quebec City riding association, explained how she had pushed through a slate of 12 delegates pledged to support Claude Wagner. She called a meeting of insiders in a restaurant before the official nomination meeting and, by the time most of the riding association members arrived at the voting hall, it was all over. The slate was in. The only unusual thing about this arrangement was that it became public knowledge, after Bourque switched her allegiance to Brian Mulroney. In London, Ontario, when officers of the London West PC Association proposed to let party members declare their leadership preferences all hell broke loose. Organizers of the upcoming Ottawa convention voiced their concern, the agents of every candidate denounced the proceedings, and a stern tut-tut wracked the Tory body politic. Consulting the unwashed is just not done in Canada. Apparently, we are one with George Mason, the American founding father who declared in 1787 that “It would be as natural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief magistrate to the people as it would be to refer a trial of colors to a blind man.”

The Americans have come some way since 1787, further than we. The primary system is worth a look, therefore, both for what it may mean to Canada in the choice of President, and for what it can tell us about the leadership selection process.

The system was designed to give ordinary voters a voice in the naming of the men and women who carry party banners in every election from city councilman to President. In the beginning, the Americans

assigned the heavy task of choosing the President (the office of most interest to us) to electors, grave and substantial men who were chosen in each state with no strings attached. They met locally, considered a list of prominent citizens, and shot the results in to headquarters. These early electors picked George Washington and John Adams, not a bad record. But with the growth of parties, as historian James Michener notes, “The splendid original concept of men of high principles convening to pass upon the credentials of those who might lead the nation had swiftly degenerated into the practical manoeuvres of party hacks to conform to the choice their party

had already made.” That is one way to look at it. Another is to conclude that not all of America’s wisdom was distilled in the few score men who became electors. In any event, after 1800 it was the party, not the electors, that counted. In theory, the President is still elected by the electoral college, but in fact there have only been a handful of times when an elector struck out on his own and voted for someone other than the popular victor in his state. (In 1956, W. F. Turner of Alabama, elected to vote for Adlai Stevenson, instead cast his vote for a local judge. Stevenson was apparently soft on “nigrahs,” according to Turner, who said, “I have fulfilled my obligation to the people of Alabama. I’m talking about the white people.”)

The party nomination is now the key to power, and the party convention bestows it. But the conventions have always been open to pressure, corruption and duplicity. “I don’t care who does the electing,” said William Marcy Tweed, the Democratic boss of the 1860s, “as long as I do the nominating.” To get around the corrupt bosses, the primary system was evolved, starting with the Wisconsin Presidential primary of 1903. Voters would select their choice for party leadership and the convention would, it was hoped, follow their lead. The idea was so obviously sound that, pushed by such progressives as Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, it spread rapidly. By 1916, there were Presidential primaries in 26 states. Not all the bugs were out, however. In 1920, after a spirited series of primary races, the Republican convention became deadlocked between the backers of two able and attractive candidates—Leonard Wood, former military governor of Cuba, and Frank O. Lowden, former governor of Illinois. The convention then turned to Warren Gamaliel Harding, a man handsome as a stud horse, and almost as smart, who converted the White House into a disaster area before he died, mercifully, in the midst of a stink of corruption now called the Teapot Dome scandal. Primaries fell into disrepute and had little impact over the next two decades, but then, beginning with Wendell Willkie’s campaign in 1940, which showed how an outsider could challenge the establishment, they came back into favor.

The trend toward what came to be called “people power” was under way, and this year there will be Presidential primaries in 29 states and the District of Columbia. These primary states will pick three quarters of the delegates to the party conventions in July and August, the other quarter coming out of the caucus system (voters meet at the precinct level to pick delegates for state and county conventions that, in turn, select national delegates). Jimmy Carter got a rousing start this year by winning 27% of the first precinct caucus vote in Iowa, even though substantially more voters opted for uncommitted delegates.

To add to the fun, the primary states hold their votes on different dates and under a wide variety of rules. There are two major types of primary—“beauty contest” and “delegate selection.” Vermont held a beauty contest primary: party members expressed a preference fonPresident, but it merely advised the convention delegates, it wasn’t binding on them. Florida held a delegate selection primary: the delegate vote will be divided on the first ballot roughly in accord with the primary results (thus Carter will have 34 Florida delegates, Wallace 26 and Jackson 21; on the Republican side, Ford will have 43 delegates and Reagan 23). Some states combine both primaries. In New Hampshire, voters chose delegates committed to candidates and, at the same time, voiced their view's on the Presidency. In some states, everyone considered a likely contender is listed, whether he wants to be or not (Morris Udall was on the Florida ballot, and did miserably because he hadn’t campaigned in the state). In other states, only those who declare themselves are counted. Henry Jackson ignored New Hampshire, concentrating his efforts, successfully, in neighboring Massachusetts. Then, there are “open” and “closed” primaries. In some states, only previously registered party members can vote in the primary . In others, the voter simply signifies his intention to vote Democratic or Republican and is handed the appropriate ballot. In one state, Wisconsin, voters can cross over, if they like, and vote for or against the other party’s candidates. In 1972, for instance, Wisconsin Republicans apparently voted heavily for George McGovern and George Wallace, perhaps because they saw them as weak opponents. And finally, in some states the primary is a “winner take all” contest—whoever gets the most votes gets all the delegates. In others, whoever wins each district gets all the delegates from that district (a district is like our riding, a precinct like our poll).

To this mishmash of rules is added another complication—timing. New’ Hampshire, perhaps the most untypical American state—tiny, white, poor, badly educated, resolutely red-neck—has become the nation’s bellweather by dint of a state law setting the local primary one w eek ahead of anyone else. This ensures that, every Presidential year, New Hampshire is awash with reporters on hand to scale its craggy hills and craggier voters. It also ensures that William Loeb, publisher of the state’s one influential paper. The Manchester Union Leader, gets to dominate American politics for one week every four years. Loeb doesn't live in New' Hampshire (he lives in Massachusetts) nor in this century. Just the same, the gun-toting, bad-mouthing publisher (President Ford is “Jerry the jerk,” Henry Kissinger, “Kissinger the kike”) has been converted by the calendar into a fount, oracle and power-broker, a task for which he is about as w ell suited as the MGM lion.

The drawbacks of the primary system are, in short, many and manifest. Richard Strout of the Christian Science Monitor was sighing in print the other day: “One can't help casting a wistful glance up at Canada now and then.” And William Miller, who ran for the vice-presidency on the Goldwater ticket, noted on television that the draw'n-out races take a fearful toll : “One of the guys is going to be President— why kill him before he gets there?” Indeed, about the highest praise available for the present arrangement appeared in a Washington column by Joseph Kraft: The test of an electoral system is not whether it consistently picks the best candidate or perfectly mirrors public opinion; the test is that it yields results which dc not cause

rival factions to reach for their guns and head for the hills.” The primaries pass the guerrilla warfare standard, even if they fail the tests of common sense and electoral efficiency.

But the primaries have their advantages, too. A nation that puts as much power and prestige in the hands of one man as the United States does in its President needs an electoral technique that allows every voter to participate in his selection. After all, the President is not merely the leader of an administration or party, he is also the head of state. The primaries involve Americans in their ow n politics. In 1972,22 million U.S. citizens voted in the primaries, in 1976, 2,600 Canadians had a say in the Tory leadership. The primary also shows how candidates react under campaign conditions. Ronald Reagan went into the New Hampshire primary as a favorite, but his callousness and economic ignorance (revealed in his plan to slash $90 billion from the federal budget without knowing where it would come from) quickly rumpled his Hollywood hairdo. In Florida, as the polls slid, he became desperate, cranky and even wild. George Wallace, the Florida frontrunner, had trouble explaining how' he proposed to slash 200,000 bureaucrats from the rolls of the department of health, education and welfare, a department with a staff of 135,000. If nothing else, the primaries are an elimination contest, like the marathon dances of the 1930s, when the last couple erect and moving won the prize. Birch Bayh, Sargent Shriver and Milton Shapp have all been erased by the primaries, and more are bound to follow. (Bayh had a tough run; a New Hampshire voter told him “I’d never vote for a man with dimples,” and Bayh retired, presumably to iron out his face.)

A system that can involve voters, test candidates (who knows how Joe Clark will fare in an election?) and loosen the iron grip of party managers is worth reforming rather than scrapping. Senator Robert W. Packwood of Oregon, among others, has proposed a bill calling for five regional primaries, each to be held on a fixed date in the months leading up to the convention. The rules would be uniform, and the results binding. Today’s mishmash would become a system. And a system that might be considered in Canada, w here the post of party leader, and especially that of prime minister, is becoming more and more dominant. If we are going to invest so much importance in a single figure, w'e have to devise some selection method better than assembling 2.600 shriekers in a convention hall and hoping for the best. Hevvard Grafftey. the Tory MF for BrcmeMissisquoi, has urged a primary system in Canada (he did so before his drubbing in the party leadership race), but so far with little result. That is too bad. Canadians might usefully examine the American experience and, between sniggers, ask whether the system, reformed, is w'orth adapting to Canadian conditions.C?