More Primary Choler

Fearing that all of cyberspace might not share his obsession with the 2000 presidential primary system, Chatterbox cut a few rhetorical corners in his entry “Primary Choler” last week. Not that anything was incorrect, of course, but in the quest for brevity, Chatterbox may have (gasp!) confused some readers. So let’s try to clear up this muddle by elaborating on a few points:

California’s new open-primary law permits voters to decide at their polling place which party’s primary they want to participate in. For example, Republicans and independents were free to vote in this June’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. But when it comes to selecting delegates to the national political conventions in 2000, both the Democrats and Republicans have national party rules that bar such open primaries. Only registered Democrats can vote in Democratic primaries, etc.

Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law earlier this month a measure that would put an initiative on the state ballot this November to suspend California’s open-primary laws for the presidential races. If the measure passes, California will choose its delegates to the national party conventions in 2000 in primaries limited to registered party members. (Confusion Eradicator: This has nothing to do with California’s electoral votes in the fall presidential election which are covered by the U.S. Constitution. We’re only talking about presidential primaries which are governed by state laws and national party rules).

But what if, as Chatterbox urges, California voters wisely reject this initiative to change the primary laws for the 2000 presidential race? Then the California presidential primary, if it were held, would be a “beauty contest” solely for bragging rights, with the actual delegates selected by other means. This alternative to primaries are caucuses, which are, in effect, local party meetings to select delegates to attend county and then state conventions. If California were to go this route (and it’s really the only thing they can do if they don’t change their open-primary law), the state’s delegate-selection process would climax at state party conventions where delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions would be chosen. Given the size of California, these state conventions would be covered as the make-or-break moment for most presidential contenders.

Because caucuses only appeal to the most passionate party members (in Iowa, for example, you often have to sit through several hours of parliamentary procedure to cast your vote), this limits turnout. In an election where only true believers vote, massive multi-million-dollar TV campaigns tend not to be cost effective. Thus, were California to switch to a convention system, many candidates would resort to old-fashioned face-to-face campaigning at party meetings around the state. This is what happens right now in Iowa and other caucus states.

All of this brings us to Chatterbox’s bottom line: Anything that lessens the political importance of 30-second TV ads is a major breakthrough for democracy.

Walter Shapiro