Montana Viewpoint
January 20, 2008

Primary elections are somewhat unique to American politics and are a way that members of a political party decide who will carry their banner in the “real” or general election. There’s nothing very strange about that, but what I have always found interesting is that the state governments pay for the parties to do this by providing the space, the machines, and the money to carry out the endeavor. To me it’s like having a government financed selection process for leadership of the Mystic Knights of the Sea.

In Canada, there are no primary elections. There, the leaders of political parties decide who will run for national office in a particular “Riding,” or electoral district. The party that elects the most members to Parliament chooses the Nation’s leader from among their shining stars. The upside is it doesn’t cost the taxpayer who is not a member of that party a dime (the really good part is that the entire campaign lasts for only a month); the downside is that generally only well behaved party members will be chosen. That leaves little room for mavericks.

This selection of candidates by party leaders in the legendary “smoke filled rooms” is the very thing primary elections in America were supposed to do away with. Although the first primary law in the nation was Oregon’s in 1910, primaries were not widespread until the debacle at the 1968 Democratic Convention led to opening up the selection process. (Gene McCarthy had won the early primaries but the convention picked Hubert Humphrey to run.) Primaries were designed to “democratize” the process by giving the decision to the party rank and file.

Federal law dictates when and how federal general elections will be held, but state law controls the primaries, and therein lies a problem. The state that has the earliest primary, no matter how unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, can have an enormous influence on who ultimately wins each party’s nomination. As this effect became obvious to the states, the primaries have been moved to dates far in advance of the general election in an attempt to give that state the more influence in the outcome. An unsuccessful attempt was made in the last Montana Legislature to create a Presidential Primary Election separate from the regular primary election in June. The price tag was a million bucks.

A victory in an early primary is expected to give the winner an unstoppable momentum; if only because the press makes such a big deal of it. A victorious candidate is the one who gets there “the firstest with the mostest” in the immortal, if mythical, words used by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to describe his military strategy.

There have been a bunch of attempts by states which now hold primaries at reasonable times to band together and have simultaneous presidential primaries on an early date, and steal the thunder from New Hampshire. New Hampshire’s primary, first by tradition, and then by state law, is the earliest in the nation and since 1968 the state legislature has bumped the date up week by week to do that.

Consider the disproportionate amount of influence that New Hampshire has on the presidential candidate selection process, and then consider New Hampshire; a state with a small population, a small economy, pretty much racially homogenous, and only one city of any appreciable size or influence—in other words, not typical of the nation as a whole. Consider that you could say pretty much the same about Montana. Except for the fact that New Hampshire primary is so well established as the certified predictor of national victory, Montana, or any other state, could move its primary to January 2nd and steal some of the show.

That won’t happen and it shouldn’t happen. There are other ways. In Montana the Republican Party has decided on attempting to exert some influence in their national selection process by having an early caucus where they will chose the party’s presidential standard bearer, similar to Iowa. Having a caucus simply means that state and county officers of the Republican Party will make the choice for the Party and decide which candidate will get the vote of all of the Party’s 25 delegates to the Republican National Convention. Because Republicans can’t hold a primary any earlier than state law allows this is their way of getting there “the fustest with the mostest.”

There will still be a Presidential primary contest on the Republican ballot in June and it will have exactly as much influence as the Democratic Presidential primary will have; precious little to none. There may be a potential downside for the Republicans, however, if the Republican nominee selected by the electorate in the June primary is different than the one picked by Party leaders on February 5th. That’s possible, because in Montana primaries every voter regardless of their political affiliation has the ability to choose which party ballot they want to vote. That means that those who vote in the Democratic or Republican primary are not as ideologically pure as the party faithful.

Even though the Montana delegates to the National Republican Convention would be bound to support the Caucus choice only on the first ballot, it might raise the question of how representative the Party leadership is of those choosing to vote the Republican ballot in the primary election. Iowa appears to avoid the problem by not placing the Presidential race on the Primary ballots.

In my view we’d be better off to shorten the time allotted to Presidential campaigns rather than increase it by moving primary dates ahead. And sometimes that smoke filled room doesn’t seem like such a bad alternative, either.

NEXT WEEK: the structure of primaries, why you can’t vote across party lines.

Jim Elliott