Welcome to the Never-Ending Primary

If Bernie Sanders hangs in until the Democratic nomination convention in July, three of the past five nominating fights will have gone the distance.


PHILADELPHIA—Bolstered by their resounding New York wins, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are poised to solidify their primary campaign leads with more victories in the five other northeastern states voting next week. Clinton can now claim victory is within sight, and while Trump’s path remains more contested, he has restored a clear lead over his rivals.

Yet despite their advantages, both front-runners are unlikely to extinguish their opposition until the last day of primaries in June, and in Trump’s case probably beyond. Before then, both could face another round of losses in May.
Such a tumultuous, elongated race may mark a new normal. Since the 1980s, both parties’ nominating contests have almost always been effectively decided by now. But this year's race is illuminating structural changes that could make extended competition more common. The race for the presidential nomination was never a sprint. But it is evolving from a marathon into something more like a triathlon.

When the modern primary system began, Democrats faced long contests in 1972 and 1976, largely because dark-horse candidates George McGovern and Jimmy Carter needed time to emerge from unusually crowded fields; Ronald Reagan’s 1976 Republican challenge to President Gerald Ford also stayed competitive through June.

But from 1980 through 2004, the only race on either side that remained truly undecided through the final day of voting was Walter Mondale’s 1984 Democratic victory over Gary Hart. Among Democrats, Edward M. Kennedy in 1980, Jesse Jackson in 1988, and Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown in 1992 continued long-shot bids through all the primaries, but by the end more as candidates advancing a message than viable alternatives: Brown, for instance, didn’t win a state after March. (Even Kennedy distantly trailed Carter in delegates.) In the 2000 and 2004 races, the last major opponent to the eventual Democratic nominee conceded in March.

Likewise, though George H.W. Bush in 1980 ran against Reagan until late May, he trailed hopelessly behind in delegates. Since then, March has been the cruelest month for GOP challengers: In the five contested GOP races since 1988, the last viable alternatives to the eventual nominee all conceded then.

The epic 2008 Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hinted at a new pattern. That race became the first since Mondale/Hart to remain competitive through the entire calendar. Now each side’s 2016 contest could persist that long. Trump will need to scratch for every delegate to secure a first ballot majority. And while Sanders may be evolving into something between a message candidate and a viable alternative, he’s likely to win enough states in May to press Clinton through California on June 7 and the District of Columbia one week later. If he does, it will mean that three of the past five nominating fights will have gone the distance after just one did from 1980 through 2004.

Factors distinctive to each race partly explain this change. In 2008, Clinton and Obama were uniquely matched in their strengths; conversely, the inability of Clinton and Trump to seal the deal largely reflects their current weaknesses (quantified in historically high unfavorable ratings).

But deeper changes are involved too. Money and media attention are to campaigns what fuel and oxygen are to fire. Trailing candidates used to quit because their money and media coverage dried up. Now candidates who cross a modest viability threshold can generate nearly unlimited amounts of both.

Small donations from online donors allow trailing candidates to more easily finance a campaign than before. In earlier years, Sanders, after his big March 15 losses, probably could have continued only by taking out a personal bank loan, a daunting prospect that often convinced candidates to quit. Instead he sent out a fund-raising email. “The fundamental change that has allowed it to continue so long is that today someone can raise extraordinary amounts of money without resorting to the old traditional fund-raising,” says Tad Devine, Sanders’s senior strategist. For establishment candidates, Super PACs provide an alternative financial lifeline.

Candidates now can also communicate with voters more easily, both through blanket cable-television and digital coverage, and social media that provide them unfiltered access to millions. Trump’s twitter following roughly equals the audience for a network-news broadcast. “The nature of media is changing, allowing the contest to be nationalized on cable [and] the internet and therefore engendering greater enthusiasm that causes [it] to go on,” says the long-time Republican strategist Karl Rove.

Rove also notes the importance of party rules that have diluted the value of victory by requiring (Democrats) or encouraging (Republicans) states to use proportional, rather than winner-take-all, systems for allocating primary delegates. Cumulatively, these changes have increased the odds that nomination races won’t be settled until candidates contest every delegate in every state and territory. “Everything matters—every small thing matters, every big thing matters, and it all gets communicated,” says Devine.

This year’s contest has also demonstrated that too many aspects of the nominating system can’t withstand the scrutiny that comes when “everything matters.” On both sides, several state parties have not operated caucuses or conventions at a professional standard commensurate with their stakes; in an age of such mass engagement, Democrats may find it hard to justify reserving 15 percent of their convention votes for unbound party “super delegates.” The campaigns barreling through 2016’s super-sized competition are redefining the nominating process for the 21st century. It’s time for those setting the rules to keep pace.