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The Elections: Why the System Has Failed

One week to the day before the New Hampshire primary last February 26, Representative John Anderson of Illinois, his daughter, his traveling staff, and his trailing press corps drove through sunny weather and a strangely snowless countryside from Manchester to Hanover—all in one van. Mr. Anderson, then exciting more public interest as a character in “Doonesbury” than as a Republican presidential campaigner, was looking forward to what he considered a big event in his campaign: he was to be interviewed by an ABC News television crew. For a contender buried in the pack of seven “major” candidates, a network TV spot was a rarity indeed.

But one of the two reporters accompanying Mr. Anderson heard the news of the ABC interview with a sinking heart. He was not sadistic enough to tell the elated candidate the cruel truth—that the ABC crew was working on a documentary, which would not be shown until summer, a little late to influence the New Hampshire primary.

Two days later another Republican hopeful, Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, appeared for an early morning rally at the fire station in North Londonderry, a small community not far from Manchester. At that time, primarily because of his prominence as Senate Minority Leader, Mr. Baker was considered one of “the top three”—or, as John Anderson enviously termed them, “the charmed circle”—which also included Ronald Reagan, the leader in national polls, and George Bush, the surprise winner of the Iowa caucuses.

The main advantage of being among the top three was the attention of television crews, which cost the networks something like $2,000 a day to deploy; at those rates, and considering the scarcity of time on thirty-minute evening news shows, the cameras were seldom pointed at the lowly likes of Mr. Anderson or Representative Philip Crane. But at the North Londonderry firehouse, that chilly February morning, a total of seven cameras, network and local, filmed Mr. Baker’s typically low-keyed speech—while, at most, perhaps two dozen laconic Hampshiremen and women listened with no great enthusiasm.

That lack of local interest in Howard Baker foretold his fate; within a week or two, he was not only out of the top three but out of the race. On the other hand, Mr. Anderson, with a surprising second-place finish in the Massachusetts primary, sprang right out of Doonesbury and into the “charmed circle” he had so envied—ultimately, of course, into the national spotlight and an independent presidential candidacy that has both major parties looking over their collective shoulders.

At least two conclusions suggest themselves from these cautionary tales. One is that in presidential politics, television can neither redeem an otherwise lifeless campaign (Baker signally lacked organization, an issue appeal, or the kind of victor’s aura Iowa had given Bush), nor kill by inattention a campaign that has a real base of public support (which Mr. Anderson as “the only moderate in the race” only needed opportunity to demonstrate).

But the other conclusion is that nothing, any more, is quite so important to a presidential candidate as television coverage. Television made Jimmy Carter in 1976, it gave George Bush his brief fling into notoriety in 1980, it has carried John Anderson—a national unknown in January of this year—into serious contention for the presidency, and it is the primary instrument by which Ronald Reagan will reach the White House, if he does.

Presidential politics today, it is reasonably fair to say, is television. Party politics in America has given way to media politics, and the full consequences of that momentous shift probably are yet to be seen; among them, surely, is the loss of function of the traditional parties and the widening gap between the media arts of running for president and the grinding politics of governing the country.

But it is not just television that has changed the way we choose presidents almost beyond recognition—hence changed the kind of presidents we are likely to elect, and what they will do with the office when they win it. When Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination in 1968 without winning or even entering a single primary, a reaction centered in the Democratic Party led to “opening up the system” for nominating presidential candidates; and when the vast sums raised for Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972 were shown to have been tainted by scandal, steeped in influence, and poured into Watergate, another reaction—this time in Congress—produced a complex federal subsidy scheme to “take the money out of politics.”

Both reforms succeeded—succeeded so well, in fact, that they turned the nominating system upside down and inside out and raised in the process the questions whether the system is not now too open on the one hand and too constrained on the other by federal restrictions on fund-raising and spending. Like most reforms conceived in committee cerebration, moreover, these produced side effects foreseen by none but the longheaded.

The new system produced, for 1980, the apparently certain nomination of President Carter by the Democrats and of Ronald Reagan by the Republicans—a pair of ex-governors, one of whom had in late June only 30 percent public approval for his handling of the presidency, and the other of whom had been rejected twice by his party and lacked, at age sixty-nine, any demonstrable experience in foreign policy, national security, or congressional affairs.

This is what reform gets us?” a reader wrote to me last spring. And when I published in the New York Times the rather snide conclusion that Carter’s record of inepitude was the worst since Warren G. Harding’s, several letters informed me that this was a slur on Harding.

In one poll, 58 percent of the respondents termed themselves unhappy with the choices offered them by the two parties; and John Anderson and his managers freely concede that his independent campaign was made possible only by the unpopularity of the Reagan-Carter match-up, which left many a voter in both parties looking for an alternative and gave Anderson roughly 20 percent of the vote in pre-convention polls.

It is not clear, however, that the system inevitably produced Reagan and Carter, or that other nominees would have emerged from a different system—say, the old, pre-1968 method—of separating wheat from chaff. Reagan, for instance, was a front-runner and won; Carter was an underdog (last fall) and won.

Both, it’s true, were veterans of the 1976 campaign, the first under the new dispensation, and presumably took advantage from that experience. But it seems unlikely that if nominations were still dominated by party leaders and professionals, an incumbent president would have been challenged for renomination, as Carter was. On the other hand, the necessity to run in primaries, which Gerald Ford did not want to do, foreclosed his chances and kept Reagan’s most formidable foe off the field.

Aside from the end product in any one year, however, sharp questions about the new nominating system are now being raised by many students of politics—practitioners, academics, journalists. And though one and a half elections—1976 and the primary half of 1980—provide limited experience by which to judge, a number of cogent criticisms seem to be emerging already, from the relatively obvious (thirty-six state primaries are too many) to the comparatively subtle (is proportional selection of delegates as fair as it seems?). Naturally, proposals to reform the reforms (regional primaries, for example) are being heard.

Here, in summary form, are the major problems—at least as I see them—of the way we nominate now:

The Early Primaries and Caucuses. Something has to come first, of course; if not the New Hampshire primary, then the Iowa caucuses, or whatever. But in a nominating system in which public contests between two or more candidates are largely determinant, the first such contests—particularly the very first—are bound to draw press coverage out of all proportion to their intrinsic importance. Iowa and New Hampshire may have only eight and four electoral votes apiece but if they provide the arenas for the first victories and the first defeats, the press will descend in numbers more appropriate to a national convention.

Editorialists as well as press critics can and do argue that this should not be so, that editors and political reporters ought to discipline themselves to give coverage to the early campaign events in proportion to their intrinsic importance. But a happening that is first of many does take on outsized even if momentary importance, particularly when candidates have been organizing and campaigning for months and when the public—the press must assume—is hungry for some measure of who’s doing well and who’s not.

Besides, in a free and highly competitive business, does the Washington Post ask the New York Times what kind of coverage it plans for the Iowa caucuses? Does NBC ask CBS? Of course not. They all assume the other fellow will go all out, and they plan to match or outdo him. And if newspapers and television did try to restrain coverage generally, they might lay themselves open to the charge they least want or need—that of collusion to affect public opinion.

The result in a contest-centered system and a media age is that the first “winner” reaps a disproportionate harvest of publicity; television, in particular, quickly stamps him (or maybe some day her) as a frontrunner and parlays his name, face, and foibles (Carter’s teeth, Bush’s jogging) into national familiarity. Carter, up against a relatively faceless field in 1976, was never headed after gaining such a media advantage in Iowa and New Hampshire; Bush, facing the famous Reagan in 1980, was boosted into his most persistent Republican challenger.

The Proliferation of Candidates. The availability of all those primaries, plus the provision of federal financing even for unknown candidates who meet a relatively low threshold of fund-raising, ensures a big field of contenders in the out-party and makes likely a challenge even to an incumbent. That’s fine for giving new faces a break, offering the voters a variety of choices, and keeping a president on his toes.

The problem is that it means somebody can come in first in a multi-candidate primary, and thus be declared a “winner,” with perhaps as little as 28 percent of the vote, as Carter did in New Hampshire in 1976. Less than a third of the voters of a minority party in a state with four electoral votes is not representative of much of anything, but the resulting press “circus” took the Georgian a long way in 1976—which is why some critics say that primaries plus federal subsidies plus television have taken the nomination away from one small and unrepresentative group (party leaders and pros) and given it to another such group (a few New Hampshire or Iowa Democrats or Republicans).

Primary Spending Limits. Not only can someone with a small percentage of the total party vote in a small state be catapulted by omnipresent media into national prominence and frontrunner status. But no other candidate—including some who might have finished only a percentage point or two behind—can rush out to his supporters, beg or borrow an infusion of funds, then outspend that “frontrunner” the next time out in order to catch up. Acceptance of a federal subsidy also means acceptance of federal spending limits for each primary.

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