The news is constantly talking about the primary elections for the presidential nominations these days, given that these elections will begin in the first week of February. This sample politics essay explores the concept of the primary election.
Historical overview of primary elections in the U.S.
To start with, then, the presidential primaries became especially important in the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention of 1968 (Center). This event was marked by chaos and riots as different factions disagreed on who should or should not be the presidential nominee for the party. This triggered the awareness that a much more logical and rigorous process was needed, so that such an event may never happen again.
It was the responsibility of the McGovern-Fraser Commission to develop this process. As Putnam has indicated, the main change was:
“the Commission created a direct link between the votes cast in primaries and caucuses and the delegates selected to attend the national convention. The result of the primaries and caucuses bind convention delegates to particular candidates” (paragraph 4).
For example, if Bernie Sanders’ campaign won Iowa, then the delegates from Iowa to the 2016 Democratic National Convention would now be obligated to vote for Sanders. The Republican Party now also follows the same post-reform process.
Policy before the reform
This perhaps raises the question of what had occurred before the Commission’s reforms. In truth, before the reforms, the nominee selection process seems to have been a much more oligarchic and much less transparent process than it is today. For example, old clichés of politicians making deals and decisions in smoky bars come to mind, and this would have been a more or less accurate representation of what actually happened.
Before the reforms, the popular sentiment regarding potential presidential candidates did not have any binding force; it would have ultimately been up to leaders at the Convention to make the final decision. For example, if the Republican Party hated Donald Trump, then the Party would not have been obligated to select him at the national convention, irrespective of what kind of popular support he did or did not have. This is clearly no longer the case.
A more democratic election
In principle, this has made the presidential nomination process much more democratic in nature. But that said, many people in contemporary times still have qualms about how undemocratic the two-party system and its processes themselves inherently are—a point made by George Washington himself regarding early American politics.
For example, Berman has pointed out that the states of Nebraska, Washington, and California use an open primary system for their state-level elections, through which primary candidates face off against each other irrespective of party affiliation:
“The push is, first and foremost, an attack on the party system, which the advocates [of open primaries] say has abused its gatekeeper role in politics and led to the gridlock and hyper-partisanship so often on display in Congress” (paragraph 4).
This said, however, most would probably agree that selected candidates on the basis of popular elections are considerably more democratic than leaving the decisions to unseen party bosses at the national party conventions.
Election versus caucus
The state of Iowa runs a caucus for its presidential primaries, whereas the state of New Hampshire runs a primary. There is a relevant difference between these two terms. As Putnam has indicated:
“The main difference between a primary election and a caucus is who is running the show. State governments conduct primaries, but state parties are behind caucuses” (paragraph 7).
The caucus is a considerably more rigorous process: it takes hours, and its goals include establishing part priorities and platforms; whereas the primary election is just that—a voting process that only takes a few minutes (Diffen). The votes cast in a caucus are public: they occur within the context of a meeting, by a show of hands. In contrast, the votes cast in an election are private, with only the voting booth knowing what the voter has finally selected.
One may think that this is just a matter of technical process. However, it could have potentially significant implications at the level of politics, especially during the current presidential primary cycle. For example, it is suspected that many who support Trump’s bid for the 2016 presidential election are unaffiliated with either major party and/or have not really felt moved to use their votes in the past. As Cassidy has suggested:
“many of Trump’s supporters are disaffected folks who are only marginally attached to the political process. A good number of them won’t show up at the voting booths” (paragraph 2).
This could have potentially significant consequences in the state of Iowa. For one thing, such people would be much less likely to be willing to put up with a several-hour process just to cast their votes. For another, caucuses (unlike elections) are only open to registered party members, which means that unregistered independents would not be able to show up to the Iowa Republican caucus and express their support for Trump.
Iowa and New Hampshire’s primaries
The news has made it very clear that Super Tuesday plays a significant role in elections, and the caucus in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire are extremely important political events. But this raises the question: how did the specific states of New Hampshire and Iowa gain this kind of precedence over all the other states of the nation? the short answer to this question consists of just a matter of circumstances.
In essence, these two primaries have become as important as they have simply because they are the first ones in the election cycle; and the fact that they are the first ones is itself attributable more to accident than anything else. As Putnam has reported:
“Due to the primary reforms after 1968, Iowa Democrats had to change their delegate selection and allocation process. A proposed June state convention in Des Moines was impossible because there were not enough hotel rooms available to state convention delegates. That pushed the state convention back” (paragraph 12).
As for New Hampshire, the primary elections were just naturally set for an early date on the calendar. This was not strategically done with the intention of gaining any kind of special significance for the states. However, special significance is exactly what the states have ended up getting. and at least some Americans have increasingly become aware of the fact that this is problematic when one considers the demographic makeups of Iowa and New Hampshire: both states are overwhelmingly white. As Hilton has written:
“The life of the average Iowan or New Hampshire doesn’t reflect the reality of the average American. Take a look at New Hampshire demographics, and you’ll see a state that’s nearly 94 percent white, with wealthier residents than many states, far fewer foreign-born residents, and higher levels of educational attainment. Iowa is much the same” (paragraph 3).
This is quite problematic, insofar as it means that a non-representative sample of the American population is able to exert a very strong influence on the course of the presidential nominee selection process. This is at least part of why it has been understood as a good thing that the primaries following Iowa and New Hampshire take place in South Carolina and Nevada—states with much more racially and socioeconomically heterogeneous populations.
However, this still leaves the question: why are Iowa and New Hampshire so significant in the first place, just because their primaries are first on the calendar? Politically speaking, they are small states, and their delegates could easily be overridden by the delegates from several other states. The real reason for the significance of these states is to be found in the role of the media in contemporary American society. It is worth examining this point in greater detail.
Role of the media in primary elections and caucuses
News outlets tend to cover presidential elections more than state-level, municipal, and congressional elections. If a presidential candidate wins Iowa and/or New Hampshire, then the mass media will clearly talk about these victories and their significance endlessly; and this would implicitly give the winner an advantage over his rivals going into future primaries. This is often conceptualized as a shift in momentum.
For example, in the 2008 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner; but then, Barack Obama upset her by taking both Iowa and New Hampshire; and from that point, he went on to win both the nomination and the presidency. Early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire can thus be read as signs of a given candidate’s real electability, and they can also serve as levers to alter the popular opinion in future primaries.
It is perhaps important to understand, however, that the mass media itself contributes to the very shift in momentum it claims to simply describe. For example, if the winner of the Iowa primary gets (say) 70 percent of all media attention, then this essentially amounts to free advertising for that candidate, which can play a crucial role in propelling him to victory in other states where he may have never been a favorite except for that extra attention.
As Contributor M.S. to The Economist has put the matter, a careful analysis:
“strips away the fiction that the media are a neutral communications channel between candidates and voters, and turns attention towards the real influence that the media’s natural biases—the bias towards surprise, the bias towards clichéd sentimental background stories, the bias against sophistication or complexity, etc.—exercise on campaigns” (paragraph 1).
Before, party bosses had significant say over who is their party’s nomination for president; but now, perhaps media corporations have significant say, insofar as they can exert significant influence over general public perception. This would explain, for example, why Trump’s assault on the mass media has proven to be such a popular part of his campaign, even among people who could not possibly agree with him on much else.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of an overview of the concept of primary elections. The essay has provided a history of the contemporary primary election, a conceptual distinction between the election and the caucus, an explanation of the special significance of Iowa and New Hampshire in this process, and an analysis of the role of the mass media in shaping the process as a whole.
A key point that has been made here is that the first primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire are significant not for intrinsic reasons, but rather for matters of sociological and cultural context. That is, they are significant because of the mass media, and because of the meanings that Americans will almost inevitably read into the results.
Berman, Russell. “What If the Parties Didn’t Run Primaries?” The Atlantic. 19 Oct. 2015.
Cassidy, John. “Will Donald Trump Supporters Show Up at the Polls?” New Yorker. 18 Dec. 2015. Web. 23 Jan. 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/will-donald-trumps-supporters-show-up-at-the-polls.
Center, Judith A. “1972 Democratic Convention Reforms and Party Democracy.” Political Science Quarterly 89.2 (1974): 325-350. Print.
Contributor M.S. “So You Think You Can Run for President.” Economist. 3 Jan. 2012. Web. 23 Jan. 2016. http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2012/01/media-and- primaries.
Diffen. “Caucus versus Primary.” Author, 2016. Web. 23 Jan. 2016. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Caucus_vs_Primary.
Hilton, Shani O. “Why (Very White) Iowa and New Hampshire Mean So Much in Politics.” Color Lines. 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Jan. 2016. http://www.colorlines.com/articles/why-very-white-iowa-and-new-hampshire-mean-so-much-politics.
Putnam, Josh. “Everything You Need to Know about How the Presidential Primary Works.” Washington Post. 12 May 2015. Web. 23 Jan. 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/05/12/everything-you-need-to-know-about-how-the-presidential-primary-works.