The Elite Primary

It's the real first-in-the-nation contest. At stake: the Rolodex men, the press, and Rush Limbaugh

Think of the Democratic Party as a particularly wild debutante. Again and again she ignores the tut-tutting of her friends and hurls herself at some mysterious stranger: JFK, McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Clinton. Think of the Republican Party as the Democrats' serious-minded sister. In all but one of the past nine elections she has opted for her highest-ranking or most senior leader: Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972; Ford, Reagan, Reagan, Bush, Bush. To find an election in which the party rejected its heir apparent in favor of an insurgent, one has to look all the way back to 1964, when the draft-Goldwater movement knocked aside Nelson Rockefeller, the multi-millionaire governor of New York State.

This year three men--Phil Gramm, Pete Wilson, and Lamar Alexander--entertain serious hopes of besting 1996's Republican heir apparent, Bob Dole. Gramm and Wilson can at least claim some heir-apparent legitimacy of their own--Gramm as the Senate's Mr. Conservative, Wilson as the governor of the largest state in the nation. Lamar Alexander, however, stands way, way back in the Republican queue. His résumé (two-term governor of Tennessee, Secretary of Education under George Bush), while creditable, ought to push him down among the Dick Lugars and Arlen Specters and other no-hopers. But for all his lack of reputation, Alexander is running a big-time campaign.

By the end of the June filing period he had raised $7.6 million, less than Bob Dole's $13.4 million, but a considerable amount of money by anybody's definition. Six of the past eight Republican National Committee finance chairmen have joined his campaign. Alexander has signed up the most brilliant of Republican media men, Mike Murphy; some of the cleverest of the Washington policy wonks; Pete Wilson's onetime biggest donor; and the man who chaired Bob Dole's 1988 New Hampshire campaign. The strategists of the Alexander campaign insist that it is precisely because their man is not the heir apparent that he can incarnate the populist, anti-Washington political passions of the 1990s. They intend, they say, to run an insurgency campaign, very like the campaigns that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 and nearly nominated Gary Hart in 1984.

But there remains one difference: the Goldwater, Carter, and Hart campaigns drew their strength from the enthusiasm of previously disorganized voting blocs. Goldwater excited the nascent conservative movement, Carter mobilized evangelical voters, and Hart appealed to upper-income Democrats who leaned to the right of their party economically and to the left of it on social issues. It is not, however, voter excitement that fuels the Alexander campaign. Alexander boasts nothing like the network of militants who seized the Republican nomination for Goldwater. His campaign is a phalanx of Republican donors and campaign operatives--an army of generals and colonels. For all Alexander's attacks on out-of-touch political elites, it's hard to remember a Republican candidacy that has gambled so completely on the power and persuasiveness of those same elites. And Alexander's ability to persist in the contest with hardly any popular support--to go on paying the exorbitant costs of a first-tier presidential campaign despite his four-percent showing in the polls--demonstrates that some people believe the gamble may not be an entirely misconceived one.

But then, what choice has Alexander got? In an excess of irony, twenty years of political reforms intended to minimize the influence of wealthy donors and maximize popular participation in the nominating process have achieved precisely the opposite result. Increasingly, the crucial primary does not occur in any one particular state: it is a shadowy national competition to raise money, sign up prominent supporters, and impress the media in the year preceding the election year. It is this "elite primary" that winnowed out Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, and other Republican aspirants.

The more ingenious Alexander, in contrast, has brilliantly turned the system to his own advantage. The Tennessee law firm headed by the former senator Howard Baker is cheerfully paying him a salary of $295,000 for the services he can spare it in the intervals between full-time campaigning. (That sum lands with a gratifying smack atop the $3 million to $6 million fortune that--as Lisa Schiffren reported in the September American Spectator--generous friends helped Alexander accumulate with hardly any money down.) And it is his success in the elite primary that has marked Lamar Alexander as a serious candidate in 1996, despite his near-total invisibility among the Republican rank and file.

Materialist explanations of history have, for obvious reasons, fallen out of fashion recently. Nevertheless, it is two hard material facts that shape the system of presidential-candidate selection: the primary schedule and the campaign-finance laws.

As late as 1968 fewer than half the voting delegates at the national party conventions were chosen by primary voters. That year Robert F. Kennedy won every primary he entered except Oregon's, but had he lived, he almost certainly would have lost the Democratic nomination to the favorite of the party leaders, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Selection by party leaders was not to happen again. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of immense suspicion of traditional elites and hierarchies, and in those years state after state abandoned the caucus or convention method of delegate selection in favor of the primary. By 1972 a majority of those able to cast a ballot at a national convention had been elected in a state primary and arrived pledged to a candidate. But the two parties did not immediately digest the logic of the primary system, because for years it appeared that little had changed--the nomination fight proceeded at the leisurely pace of the early years of the century, beginning in Iowa in the dead of winter, arriving in the big midwestern states in the spring, and culminating in California in early June.

The first candidate to understand the implications of imposing a new method of picking delegates upon the old schedule was Jimmy Carter. He realized that by painstakingly working the state of Iowa for months, almost as if he were running for governor, he could post a surprisingly strong showing in that state. His win there transformed him into a national figure, enabling him to raise money to fight the big, costly primaries later in the year. George Bush copied the Carter method in 1980, and though he didn't win the Republican nomination, he did promote himself from being a relatively inconsequential politician into the vice presidency.

But the Carter method hasn't worked since. In the mid-1980s the leisurely schedule inherited from the bygone days of caucuses and state conventions began to be compressed. Anxious to pull their party in a more conservative direction, southern Democrats grouped their 1988 primaries together in one "Super Tuesday." With hundreds of delegates from the nation's most conservative states up for grabs on a single day in March, relatively early in the primary season, aspirants would, it was hoped, adopt a new, right-leaning political argot. At first the plan backfired--with Richard Gephardt, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis dividing the white vote, the surprise beneficiary of the first Super Tuesday was Jesse Jackson--but it did succeed in cramping the hopes of Carter-style insurgents by denying them time to capitalize on early successes in the small states. In 1988 Bob Dole and Pat Robertson relegated George Bush to a humiliating third-place finish in Iowa, to no avail. In 1992 Pat Buchanan's primary challenge to President Bush soon fizzled out, despite an impressive 37 percent finish in New Hampshire.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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