Primary Colors

John Kerry
John Kerry; drawing by David Levine

Now that John Kerry seems the likely Democratic candidate, it’s worth considering how the Democrats chose him, so that we can sort out the myths about the major candidates and the factors that have shaped the outcome thus far. The realities are unsettling. Not only have most of the candidates, abetted by the press and television, misrepresented themselves and their records, but much about the process of choosing the next nominee of the Democratic Party has gone seriously wrong, largely owing to mismanagement on the part of the Democratic National Committee and the treatment of the candidates by the press.

The idea behind bunching up the primaries within a few months, the brainchild of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, was that the Democrats should select a candidate as quickly as possible, giving the nominee more time to raise the enormous amounts of money needed to respond to the heavily funded Republican advertising campaigns that have already begun. But what if the primary voters haven’t had enough time to learn about the candidate they select? What if there could have been a better decision? Even with more time the Democrats have in the past made some weak and even preposterous choices of nominees, as they did with Michael Dukakis in 1988. The nominee could possibly govern us for the next four or eight years. In view of what’s at stake, why should it be so important to complete the process so early—why not take two or three more months?

Under the new, compressed calendar, the nomination battle whooshes from state to state without giving the voters much time to reflect on the candidates and to take account of what has happened in the most recent contest, or contests. Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, has found that Kerry’s Iowa victory gave him an additional twenty to thirty percentage points virtually overnight in New Hampshire and several other states. The pollster John Zogby has said, “This year’s front-loaded primary schedule appears to have worked well in favor of the front-runner—as it apparently was intended to.” In previous nomination fights, a two-week gap occurred between Iowa and New Hampshire (this year there was just one), and that gave the voters some time to distance themselves from the hyperbolic television coverage and consider what they’d heard. Citizens in seven states voted on February 3, requiring a frenetic dash from state to state that left the candidates as dizzy as the voters. This is no way to pick a possible president.

McAuliffe, who is forty-six years old and grew up in St. Louis, has long been a Democratic Party activist and a successful fund-raiser. (He was a strong backer of Dick Gephardt.) He is a tall, friendly man, with many of the affable qualities of the old-fashioned Irish pol. He was virtually Bill Clinton’s only friend in Washington after the Lewinsky…


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