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Q & A: Political Scientist Marissa Martino Golden on the Primary Process

The 2008 presidential primary elections have generated an unusual level of attention from both voters and the press. Changes in the traditional schedules have generated controversy—and fresh interest in the primary system itself. Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science Marissa Martino Golden offers a few thoughts on the topic.

The primary system itself strikes many people as being very flawed and in many ways undemocratic. Do you see any significant changes to the system taking place in the near future?

First, I would say that the process is hyperdemocratic. But I’ll return to that in a moment. As far as prospects for reform, I have two comments.

First, other than the introduction of super-delegates and the abolition of delegate quotas, there has not been any significant reform at the national level since the McGovern-Fraser Commission dreamed up this crazy process in 1972. So I don’t see the parties stepping in and reforming the process in any major way.

Second, however, most political scientists think that it is inevitable that we will end up with a one-day national primary by default. In other words, the incentives are so great for individual states that they will continue to move their primaries up to the earliest possible date, eventually resulting in a one-day national primary. Before Tuesday, I would have agreed with that analysis. But I think the fact that the nominating process is not yet over may change the structure of incentives such that at least some states will see the potential benefits of having later primaries. This may slow the trend towards an ever increasingly front-loaded process. I would view anything that slows down the process as a positive development as it allows more time for voter education to occur.

How has this current process highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the current system?

I think the strength of the current system is that it is incredibly democratic. It is an extraordinarily transparent process in which anyone can participate—even, in many states, those not affiliated with either of the parties.

I also think that this feature is the system’s chief weakness. There is not enough of a role for peer review—for people "in the know" to use their knowledge to pick the most electable candidate. So to my mind, the chief flaw of the current process is that it does not pay sufficient attention to electability, which is, after all, the rasion d’etre of political parties in the first place. And I think that flaw is a direct result of the plebiscitary nature of the process and the absence of a more prominent role for old-style party bosses who were more centrally concerned with winning elections.

You’re critical of the "horse race" coverage of the primaries. What sort of reporting would you like to see more of?

Dan Rather once asked me why Iowa was so important. I looked at him incredulously and said, "because you make it so important." But I’ve changed my view. I think the problem is with the process, not the media’s coverage of it. If you have a plebiscitary and sequential process—instead of one that relies on peer review and coalition building—then the media will inevitably cover it as such. In addition, in a plebiscitary system, the public’s only source of information is the media. By contrast, in a system of peer review, the people deciding who their party’s nominee will be are peers who have personal knowledge of the candidates, their leadership skills, and their electability. But since I don’t see us going back to the smoke-filled rooms of yore, I don’t see much likelihood that the media’s focus on the horse race will diminish any time soon.

About that horse race ...

Finally, just a few comments about the horse race. First, the results from Super Tuesday highlight what an important role the rules of the nominating process play.

Clinton and McCain won many of the same states, but because the Republicans use a "winner-take-all" system of delegate allocation, McCain emerged as the clear front-runner. But because the Democrats award delegates proportionally, Obama was able to keep the race tight despite the fact that Clinton won a plurality of the vote in most of the "big" states.

Another interesting example of this is that Obama seemed to do much better in states holding caucuses rather than primaries. Ditto for Mike Huckabee. So the method used—primary versus caucus—played a role in who "won” in those states. Because caucuses have lower turnout, they are more susceptible to having a small group of very enthusiastic supporters determine the outcome.

<Back to Bryn Mawr Now 2/7/2008

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