Has This Been the Best Primary Season Ever?

Coming into this very long, harried, and intensely reordered presidential primary season, there was a lot of talk about how poorly the nominating process serves the electorate. The common argument seemed to be that the acceleration and clustering of states’ primaries would create a chaos from which no electoral good would come.

I’d like to suggest an opposing view: this primary season has been remarkably successful at letting the public come to know the candidates and what they’re about. Why?

For one thing, there has been massive exposure to every significant candidate, thanks in part to the scattered primary schedule. There have been so many debates that a voter would have had to try hard not to at least read about them, let alone see them.

But the second reason is, I think, far more important. This year’s primary schedule has forced candidates to act a bit less like candidates and a bit more like managers — and, therefore, a bit more like an actual President.

Think about it. The schedule called for a dazzling array of primary variables: some were public caucuses and some were standard private votes; independents voted in some primaries and not in others; both parties held primaries on the same day in some states and on different days in others. And then there’s the intense clustering of many primaries in many states in a relatively short time.

So what have the candidates been forced to do? Strategize intensely, adapt to a slew of different circumstances and formats, and, most of all, figure out how best to allocate precious resources — money and time chief among them — in order to optimize their outcome.

Sounds kind of like managing, doesn’t it? And it sounds kind of like making the decisions that someone like a President makes, doesn’t it? Rudy Giuliani, for instance, decided to forego the early primaries and concentrate on Florida, a brash and highly untraditional cost-benefit decision whose outcome we’ll know shortly. Was he wise to not squander his resources on those first states? Or did he sacrifice precious momentum by sitting them out?

I am not saying that the nominating process is a great way to assess what kind of President a candidate would make; I’m not sure there is such a thing. But I do think that, for all the anxiety that greeted this primary season, the public and the media have gotten a truer taste of how each candidate responds to a variety of pressures, the need to make quick decisions and strategic shifts, and the allocation of scarce resources. It just might be good training for something like, say, putting together a financial stimulus plan that works.


Best of all, it will soon be over.


I can see Dubner's point, but when I sat down to vote in my primary, it dawned on me that despite my best effort to try and differentiate between the candidates that it was virtually impossible to know exactly where any of these people stood (except say, Ron Paul, who I ironically wouldn't vote for in a million years).

I kind of wish that there was a registry where I could see specific questions where people were asked to write out their exact plans for certain issues (healthcare, education, social security, etc.) I know that such sites exist, but which ones are the reliable ones?


I never understood the benefit of having the primaries scattered throughout a few months. It just seems stupid that the media has trumped up 2-3 state votes that control less than 5% of the total delegates together as a sure sign of who is going to win.

Also, I believe I read a paper that was a link from here about how a voter in the first primaries had about 20x more power in their vote than later voters.

The Darkness

I don't want to sound like a Ron Paul internet troll, but I'd have to disagree with the comment that, "For one thing, there has been massive exposure to every significant candidate". Even Giuliani consistently gets much more press (this post included) than Paul even though Paul has beaten him in 5 states.


After the Florida election, it will become clear the Giuliani made a critical error in not competing in the early elections. Polls in Florida seem to show is support dropping with every caucus and primary

David R.

I think nomination process is extremely flawed. The national ballot will have 8+ candidates representing 8+ parties. Someone like Michael Bloomberg could easily be on the ballot, though he does not represent any party. Presidents are often elected with less than 50% of the vote, and that does not include the substantial percentage who stay home because no one represents their views. Caucus, primaries, delegates, etc. may serve parties, but starting from scratch is that how candidates for our countries highest office should be chosen?

Instead, I suggest we have a national primary this time of year to pare the number of candidates for president to 8. The top four are eligible for the next run-off election, and the final two are selected from a late summer run-off election. Each voter selects their top 4, then their top 2. Party affiliation has no bearing on whom is selected, though parties would certainly be able to endorse candidates, sponsor candidates and develop platforms.

Alternatively, instant run-off voting would work, but I protest that the process for allowing candidates on the ballot is flawed,



The Darkness: I'll call BS on that. Go back to spamming Digg please, I'm pretty sure it's been 10 minutes since I've seen a Paul article on there.

I completely agree with the problem with the staggered primaries, and I'm not surprised at the "20x" figure. Agree, as well, with the notion that over 8 months, we all say and do stupid things. That's part of the reason I cut Jessica Simpson and George W. Bush a break for the "Bush-isms". Even though they both sort of do it intentionally for charisma purposes.

The biggest disappointment for me in this election has been the way that folks - republicans especially - seem to have started this "anyone but Hillary" campaign. It reminds me of Hootie and the Blowfish - they were popular, and sure there were plenty of reasons not to like them. But all of a sudden, it just became "cool" (in the high school sense) to not like them. And not only to not like them, but to pretend someone was stabbing you in the ear if you ever so much as heard a note from one of their songs. Certainly Hillary's a distinct candidate for a number of reasons, but I don't see her as too strikingly different than Edwards, for example. Not saying I'd vote for either of them, but I sure as heck won't vote against them because it's cool to make fun of one of them.



Oh man, they have different names for the delegates in different parties? Thanks Scott, I'll be reading that website over dinner. Once I've mastered it I'll move on the the republican side of things too. Maybe it will all become useful someday during a triva game...


The Green Papers is the best place I've found to read up on the rules used by the Republican and Democratic parties for selecting candidates.



I believe that we know less than we should about these candidates. Too much focus on whose ahead and little or no focus on the issues. Do we know how any one of them is going to push and get campaign reform, restore our Constitution, rid us of the Rx donut hole, offer one payer universal health care, leave Iraq ASAP? Hillary is the only one that has come close to summarizing her policies. Let's not forget thanks to the media that some real good candidates were trashed by the media and given little coverage.

What we have come to know this election year is how powerful interests still control elections and that our democracy is on a downward spiral. Worst of all do we not have the most unsophisticated electorate in the world? Charisma over substance, vacuous platitudes over real time goals, and playing into the media need for blood at the expense of the tax payers/voters. The only sin Christ died of was, stupidity and of course exhaustion from our follies.



I take exception to the statement that there has been massive exposure to every significant candidate. There has been massive exposure to nly the candidates that the press deams significant and therefore they BECOME the significant candidate. Most recently the Russert, Williams led Republican debate was egregious in this. Romney and McCain were asked FAR more question than Huckabee and Paul. Similarly Biden and Richardson never were given a chance. Biden was the only candidate with a real solution for Iraq and his position should have been debated extensively to see if it held promise. Even Edwards gets a much smaller exposure. Similarly Huckabee's sales tax plan is dismissed by editors all over the country who are too lazy to look at the details so we can have a real discussion as to whether it would work. Ron Paul is the only candidate who understands what was wrong with invading Iraq and the press dimisses him. Like sheep they call him crazy. The press does not question Obama's experience or lack of accomplishment. They are so seduced by a very articulate black candidate that they don't examine his credentials. Voting present in the legislature is not an accomplishment. He has been running for President ever since he got in the Senate. As a result the Democrats will once again nominate a candidate who will lose even to an inferior Republican.

So it is ridiculous for the press to congratulate itself for providing massive exposure to the candidates. Is anyone paying attention to the distortions??


Pat Walker

You know the contrarian-thinking bandwagon has jumped the shark when you start reading arguments about how the presidential selection process isn't broken.


I dislike the power the "media elite" have assumed during this process. Why does a network have a right to prevent candidates from participating in the debates? Why have they continually referred to several candidates (Dodd, Kucinich, Biden on the Democratic side; Paul and Hunter on the Republican) as marginal, therefore refusing to cover them with any seriousness, and thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy? And why are the celebrity-journalists so sloppy? (I couldn't believe Brian Williams at the Nevada debate asking Obama to answer internet rumors as credible as tabloid headlines; and I don't understand how Chris Matthews remains employed. Don't even get me started on Fox "News"!)

Another thought: what about rotating primaries? Say, 5 sets of primaries, approximately 10 neighboring states each (or 10 sets of 5 states if you'd rather), each primary day 2-4 weeks apart. So, in 2008, the Northeast went first. In 2012, the Southeast. In 2016, the Midwest, etc. etc. A more efficient way to spend resources, and a chance for greater exposure in different parts of the country that normally get short shrift.



The question is how much is due to the primary/caucus schedule, the willingness of the candidates to debate each other face to face and not ad to ad and the fundamental difference - the wide open race.
You have no incumbent - no VP who wants to replace his boss, and no set agenda. If anything, it is a question of how can you distinguish yourself from the current office holder. There was a time that the Democrats envied the Republicans because they could project a single focused message - from all the candidates and then, with an uncontested convention, at the convention. This year, the conventions might actually be more like conventions of old - with one faction trading off against the other. I'll swing my delegates if you agree to moderate your position toward my on this issue.

The most amazing thing is how well the negative campaigning has been moderated so far.

Nathaniel Heidenheimer

I don't know if its sufficiently freak, but the economics of the election have been quite clear. Only those with cash from the wolves will be allowed to speak to more than 13 people at a time re: their plans for a new chicken coup.

What has been noteworthy is the degree to which corporations reached into the womb of the body politic earlier than ever to manage the selection process. Grass roots could never grow in Wolf Blitzkreig's Corporate hothouse!

Only the leading Corporate Money candidates were covered via the so called "free media". The more dislike of the status quo, the
earlier the c-section done by Dr. Wolf Blitzkreig, so that the new born would not deviate too much from our current Corporate Oligarchy.

It could make an unsufficiently caffinated citizen grumpy. The Corporate Underwriters of Clinton News Network and Barack N' Bomb "Em received
much more than the commercial time that they paid for.

Corporate Selection 08!


Frank Slazer

Whether this is the best Primary season ever or not remains to be seen - it depends on the ultimate quality of the candidates produced. One observation I'd add is that the whole concept of a mass democratic nominating process is stupid and it shows when you look at the Presidents its produced over the past 50 years and compare it to the purported evils of the earlier "smoke filled rooms of yore. I know we will never go back but when you look at the like of FDR, Wilson, Lincoln and TR - then compare it to the Nixon, W's and even Carter (great man, mediocre President), you can't help but conclude we are doing it wrong. The fact of the matter is that, despite media feeding frenzies over trivia, most people's do not participate in the nominating process - far fewer than the general election - resulting in a nomination skewed by party activists. to nominations No other major democracy exposes its candidate selection process to the circus like process that we use - and they are all the better for it.



Provocative thought although managing is not the same as governing. The President's job is to set the direction for his or her administration and hire/appoint the right people to manage or implement the administration's policies. I agree with the folks who rightly point out that we need a forum that allows us to see proposed policies of each potential President clearly. Policies are formed around the issues and it would be beneficial to understand the policy direction of each candidate - not merely the tactical approach.


The best thing about this primary season, besides the demise of Guiliani, is that the Democrats have THREE really great candidates left out of of field of 7 or 8 really great candidates. The worst thing about this primary season is that only one of these 3 will win. Bummer! All I can say is that I hope the winner is my candidate.


You're kidding, right? At least on the Democratic side, the mainstream media decided that this would be a two-person race long ago, and their laserlike focus has insured that it remained so. Most Americans never got to know a thing about the other candidates. As long as the media follows the polls, and the polls follow what people hear about from the media, there's no way we will have free elections based on positions rather than name recognition.

Alan in Sydney

Yes the debates have been good but can somebody please tell McCain that tax cuts are not the answer to every problem. Next he'll be saying they are a cure for cancer....Parag Khanna points out today in a very thoughtful article in the Times we are living in a complex world of changing geopolitics. In answer to Khanna's analysis all McCain would do is shout TAX CUTS!!