Presidential Nominating Process: Current Issues

Presidential Nominating Process:
Current Issues
Updated June 26, 2008
Kevin J. Coleman
Analyst in Elections
Government and Finance Division

Presidential Nominating Process: Current Issues
Every four years, the presidential nominating process generates complaints and
proposed modifications, and the rapid pace of primaries and caucuses that
characterized the 2000 and 2004 cycles will continue in 2008. Because many states
scheduled early contests in the 2000 cycle, both parties subsequently created task
forces on the process. For a time the parties pursued a cooperative effort to confront
problems associated with front-loading for 2004. In the end, Democrats approved
moving up state primary dates for 2004, but retained Iowa and New Hampshire’s
early events; Republicans rejected a proposed reform plan. At the state level, the
National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) supports a regional primary plan
that would rotate regional dates every four years.
The Democratic Party approved changes to its calendar rules again last year. In
July 2006, the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee extended an exemption to
Nevada and South Carolina (Iowa and New Hampshire were previously exempted)
from the designated period for holding delegate selection events; and the Committee
proposed sanctions for any violations. With the exception of these four states,
Democratic party delegate selection rules dictate that the first determining step in
choosing national convention delegates could not begin until February 5, 2008. On
August 25, 2007, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) stripped Florida of its
national convention delegates because the legislature scheduled the Presidential
primary for January 29, a date that conflicted with party rules. Michigan Democrats
also forfeited their national convention delegates by scheduling a January 15 primary.
Ultimately, the DNC decided on May 31, 2008, to seat full delegations for each state
with a half vote for each of the delegates, thereby reducing each delegation vote by

50% at the convention.1

In the 110th Congress, four bills to reform the nominating process by
establishing a regional system of primaries and caucuses have been introduced (H.R.
3487, H.R. 1523, S. 1905, and S. 2024). The Senate Rules and Administration
Committee convened a hearing on S. 1905 on September 19, 2007.
Front-loading is only the most recent among a list of complaints about the
nominating system, which has avoided wholesale change despite criticism every four
years from voters, the candidates, and the press. After several decades of debate,
observers are divided on the best approach to reform. The lack of consensus for
reworking the primary system is due partly to its complex design, which frustrates
pursuit of a simple, obvious solution, and partly to the political parties pursuing their
own variable interests concerning their delegate selection rules. The states further
complicate the process by independently scheduling primary election dates.
Congress, political commentators, and academics have offered various reform
proposals over the years, but many important dimensions of reform depend on
whether the parties are willing to change the system for choosing delegates to their
national conventions.

1 Sean Forman, “Floridians Fared Reasonably Well in DNC Rules Committee Decision,”
Miami Herald, June 4, 2008, p. OP.

2008 Election.....................................................3
Calendar Changes, 1988-2008........................................4
Evaluating the Primary System.......................................6
Reform Proposals..................................................7
Legislative Considerations...........................................7
List of Figures
Figure 1. Number of Presidential Primaries, 1912-2008...................2
List of Tables
Table 1. Democratic and Republican National Convention Delegates, 2008....4

Presidential Nominating Process:
Current Issues
The contemporary nominating system, in which primaries are the dominant
feature, grew out of sweeping reforms adopted in the early 1970s. For the preceding
120 years, state delegations to the national party conventions had been largely chosen
by party leaders or in closed caucus meetings that vested control in the party
hierarchy. Although the primary was introduced by Progressive reformers just after
the turn of the century, it did not replace party control of the process for choosing
delegates to the conventions for many decades. Florida was the first state to adopt
a version of the primary in 1901, but Wisconsin’s 1905 law was the first to provide
for the use of the primary in presidential nominations.2 By 1916, at least 20 states
had a presidential primary in some form. However, many states quickly abandoned
the method when the Progressive movement faded and the number of primaries
dropped in the years following the First World War.
The number of primaries began to increase again after World War II, but they
initially had little effect on winning the nomination. Candidates often chose one or
more specific state primaries in which to compete to demonstrate their potential
electability, but the primary process did not usually determine the selection of
delegates and did not threaten party control of the state delegations. In the 1952
Democratic race, for example, Senator Estes Kefauver (TN) prevailed in 12 of the 15
primaries held, captured 64% of the vote nationally, but failed to win the nomination.
Instead, the convention chose Governor Adlai Stevenson, who had won 1.6% of the
primary vote nationwide.3
Pressure to change the nominating system mounted in the turbulent political
climate of the 1960s due to the perception that the process was undemocratic. A
transforming event occurred at the Democratic convention in 1968, where violent
confrontations between war protesters and the Chicago police outside the convention
hall, and bitter credentials disputes inside, spurred Democrats to completely change
the party’s nominating rules. The new rules transferred the power of choosing
delegates from party leaders to rank-and-file voters, opening the process to
widespread popular participation for the first time. Many state parties switched to
primaries to comply with the newly adopted national party rules. The Republican
Party also modified its rules in the early 1970s. Subsequently, as shown in Figure 1,
the number of party primaries in the states rose steadily. Between 1968 and 1992,
the number of states with Democratic party primaries increased from 15 to 40; states

2 William Crotty and John S. Jackson III, Presidential Primaries and Nominations,
(Washington, Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1985), p. 14.
3 Congressional Quarterly, U.S. Guide to Elections, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C., CQ Press,

1994), p. 513.

with Republican Party primaries from 15 to 39, the most since the introduction of the
primary in 1912. In 2004, Democrats scheduled 38 primaries, while Republicans
scheduled 32.4 For 2008, Democrats have scheduled 37 primaries and Republicans
plan to hold 39.
Figure 1. Number of Presidential Primaries, 1912-2008
Dem ocrats R ep ublic ans
19 20 1936 1 952 1968 1 984 20000
1912 1928 1944 1960 1976 1992 2008
Source: Harold W. Stanley and Richard G. Niemi, Vital Statistics on American Politics.
(Washington, CQ Press, 1998), p. 60, and press reports for 2000 and 2004 figures. For 2008,
figures are from the National Association of Secretaries of State.
The reforms of the 1970s fundamentally changed the structure of the nominating
system and, in turn, led to changes in the dynamics of nomination politics. Under the
old system, the drama of choosing the party’s candidate occurred at the convention,
where party leaders who controlled blocs of delegates would broker the choice of
nominee. Reform redirected the suspense of the nomination contest to the states,
where presidential candidates sought support directly from voters in primaries and
caucuses, with the media highlighting the results. This new dynamic boosted the
importance of the earliest events in Iowa and New Hampshire and set off a trend
toward rescheduling in other states in order to better attract candidate and media

4 Although 32 Republican primaries were scheduled, only 27 were actually held. Five were
cancelled because only George W. Bush qualified for the primaries. See Harold W. Stanley
and Richard G. Niemi, Vital Statistics on American Politics 2006-2006 (Washington, D.C.,
CQ Press, 2000), p. 66.

2008 Election
For the first time since 1952, the nomination contest for both parties does not
include an incumbent President or Vice President. A crowded field of Republican
and Democratic candidates entered the race as a result. Despite a fast-paced primary
and caucus calendar that was expected to narrow the field quickly, that has not been
the case on the Democratic side. Some observers have suggested that an
inconclusive primary season could result in a “brokered” convention, whereby the
nominee is chosen at the convention based on dealmaking and bargaining.
Speculation about such an outcome has focused attention on the “superdelegates,”
a category of automatic, unpledged delegates who are not required to declare a
presidential candidate preference.5 The last Democratic nomination contest to feature
a questionable convention outcome was in 1980, before the creation of the
superdelegate category.6
The 1984 Democratic convention was the first to include superdelegates, who
were added in response to rule changes that had sharply reduced the influence of
party leaders and Democratic office holders on the nominating process (see preceding
section of this report). Following President Carter’s defeat in 1980, the party added
superdelegates as a counterbalance to the influence of rank and file voters. The
superdelegates were introduced to promote party cohesion and to rally support for
future nominees among party professionals and Democrats in the Congress. It was
believed that party leaders and elected officials, given their own political experience
and knowledge, could also help with evaluating and selecting nominees.7 Initially,
the superdelegates were approximately 14 percent of all convention delegates; they
will account for 20 percent of those who attend the 2008 convention.
The following categories comprise the superdelegates:
!all members of the Democratic National Committee;
!all Democratic Members of the U.S. House and Senate;
!Democratic Governors;
!distinguished party leaders (including former Presidents, Vice
Presidents, and congressional leaders); and

5 While Republicans have a small number of automatic delegate slots reserved for party or
elected officials, the term “superdelegate” is generally used only with respect to Democratic
party delegates.
6 President Carter entered the 1980 convention with a slim lead in delegate support. For the
first time in party history, the convention was considering a rule to require delegates to be
bound to their preference on the first ballot. Forces for Senator Edward Kennedy, who
finished second in primary and caucus voting, sought to defeat the rule and attempt to throw
open the voting on the first ballot. The rule was upheld and Carter was renominated on a
2,123 to 1,150 vote. See, for example, Congressional Quarterly, National Party
Conventions, 1831-2000, (Washington, CQ Press, 2001), pp. 140-141.
7 Democratic National Committee, Report of the Commission on Presidential Nomination,
adopted by the Committee on March 26, 1982, p. 16.

!an additional number of delegates (one for every four members of
the Democratic National Committee from the state), called “add-on”
Because Democrats assign pledged delegates in primaries and caucuses
proportionally according to voters’ Presidential candidate or uncommitted
preferences (with a 15% threshold), the importance of the superdelegates increases
according to the closeness of the race.
Table 1. Democratic and Republican
National Convention Delegates, 2008
Total Number ofTotal Needed for Nomination
Democratic 4,234* 2,118
Republican 2,380 1,191
* Includes 796 superdelegates, who are 20% of the total delegates to the convention.
Calendar Changes, 1988-2008
Most of the changes to the calendar over the last two decades resulted from state
legislatures scheduling earlier primary or caucus events, either individually or as part
of a collective effort within a single region of the country. In the 1970s, attempts to
organize regional primary events in New England, the Midwest, and the Pacific
Northwest were unsuccessful. But in 1988, a March regional primary was
successfully organized in 14 southern states. This southern “Super Tuesday” regional
primary, however, failed to bolster the region’s political strength in the nominating
process, and by 1996 seven states had abandoned the event. None of the changes
displaced Iowa and New Hampshire from their prominent role as the first caucus and
primary, respectively, but they have further contributed to a perception that the
system is confusing and unorganized.8
The 2000 calendar was the most front-loaded ever with respect to the number
of delegates at stake, but not with respect to the number of primaries. California
moved its primary from the last Tuesday to the first Tuesday of March, and New
York also advanced its primary by two days to the same date (March 7). Ohio also
moved up its primary to the first Tuesday in March, resulting in a crowded schedule
of 16 primaries and caucuses that spanned the country and vastly increased the
number of delegates to be selected. With the addition of California, New York, and
Ohio on March 7, between 70% and 80% of the delegates needed to claim the
nomination in either party were allocated as a result of voting on that date. As it
happened, the contest for the nomination on both sides was declared over in the press
by March 7, by which time voters in fewer than half the states had cast ballots.

8 Stephen J. Wayne, The Road to the White House, (Belmont, CA, Wadsworth, 2004), pp.


National party changes after the 2000 election led to an earlier start in 2004, the
most front-loaded calendar to date in terms of the number of primaries. A Republican
task force approved a plan to set dates for primaries and caucuses — a first for a
party that traditionally has deferred to the states on such matters. The change
required approval at the national convention in August 2004 (and would have gone
into effect for 2008). Known as the Delaware Plan, it would have created a
four-month calendar, with the smallest states voting first, in February, followed by
a group of larger states in March, with the largest states voting last in May. The plan
was approved by the RNC rules committee and would have gone to the whole
convention for approval, had not the convention rules committee voted the plan
down. Meanwhile, Democrats approved allowing states to hold contests on the first
Tuesday in February, a month earlier than in 2000, with an exception for Iowa and
New Hampshire.
In 2006, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) again revised its rules for
the 2008 primary schedule, creating a calendar with the earliest start and the most
front-loaded ever. With the approval of two new exceptions to the DNC rule for
holding primaries and caucuses during the specified “window,”9 the Nevada caucus
was scheduled for January 19, five days after the Iowa caucus. The New Hampshire
primary was next, on January 22, while the South Carolina and Florida primaries
followed a week after New Hampshire. Because Florida (January 29) and Michigan
(January 15) were not among the states granted an exception to the timing rule, the
Democratic national party has announced that the Florida and Michigan delegations
will not be seated at the 2008 convention if the respective primary results are used
to determine the selection of delegates.10
Republicans have already began evaluating the performance of the nominating
process in 2008, and Democrats are likely to follow once the primaries conclude on
June 3. The Republican party’s rules committee approved a plan that would impose
a new system for choosing national convention delegates, known as the Ohio Plan,
for the 2012 election.11 Under the plan, Iowa and New Hampshire could vote during
the first week of February, followed by South Carolina and Nevada any time after
New Hampshire. Beginning the third week of February, small states, the territories,
and Puerto Rico could begin voting, followed by separate groups of larger states on

9 The four exceptions to the specified period for holding initial delegate selection events are
Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Other states are required to hold events
between the first Tuesday in February and the second Tuesday in June. Democratic national
party rules state: “No meetings, caucuses, conventions or primaries which constitute the first
determining stage in the presidential nomination process (the date of the primary in primary
states, and the date of the first tier caucus in caucus states) may be held prior to the first
Tuesday in February or after the second Tuesday in June in the calendar year of the national
convention.” Democratic National Committee, Delegate Selection Rules for the 2008
Democratic National Convention, as adopted by the Democratic National Committee,
August 19, 2006, p. 12.
10 Roger Simon, “DNC Ruling on Florida Primary a Crucial Test of Party Power,” The
Union Leader, August 28, 2007, p. A9.
11 Nicole Gaudiano, “Primary Schedule That Moves Del. Earlier Wins Initial RNC Vote,”
Gannett News Service, April 9, 2008.

three successive dates. The order of the larger state groupings would rotate every
four years. To be adopted for 2012, the plan will need to be adopted by the
Republican National Committee, the rules committee of the national convention, and
the convention itself. According to press reports, Republicans plan to seek the
cooperation of Democrats in putting the plan into place in the states, as they did prior
to the 2000 election.
Evaluating the Primary System
Most state primaries were adopted following rules changes of the early 1970s
to reform the arguably undemocratic process used to select nominees. However, other
complaints about the system continue to arise. In addition to front-loading,
complaints include low levels of participation, the predominance of Iowa and New
Hampshire, dissatisfaction with the field of candidates who enter the race, the length
of the season (either too short or too long), the role of the media, and confusion about
the complex rules that govern the process. Some of these perceived problems stem
from the design of the nominating system, such as calendar length, and could be
addressed jointly by the national parties if cooperation benefitted Democrats and
Republicans alike. But some complaints, about low turnout, for example, apply to
elections generally, and it is unlikely that nominating reforms would resolve such a
fundamental problem. Also, the role of the media and the field of candidates who
choose to run are a third category of complaints that stem more from the current
political culture than from electoral structure. Changes to the nominating system,
even a wholly new method of choosing party candidates, would arguably do little to
diminish these and other non-structural complaints.
Despite long-standing complaints, the existing primary system routinely
accomplishes its fundamental task — the selection of general election candidates
according to the voting results in the states and territories or insular areas. The system
is indirect, relying on elected delegates rather than the popular vote to determine the
nominees. However, it differs markedly from the system of years past, when party
leaders dominated the process. Because a majority of delegates is required for
nomination, rank-and-file voters are usually willing to rally around the candidate
chosen at the convention, even in years marked by internal party division. Finally,
since the reforms of the 1970s, presidential elections have been marked by strong
two-party competition for the presidency — Republican nominees have won six
general elections and the Democrats have won three in generally close elections.
With a few notable exceptions, the primary system has produced generally
competitive candidates for the fall election. To be successful, any system arguably
would need to retain the link between popular participation and candidate choice, and
also address at least some of the problems attributed to the primary system. As long
as the major parties continue to win the presidency, however, one party or the other
is likely to have a vested interest in preserving the process that produced a victorious
general election candidate.

Reform Proposals
Most reform proposals, including those introduced in Congress over the past 50
years, can be grouped in three categories according to the overall design of the
resulting system: a national primary, regional primaries, and those that would
establish a “window” for holding contests.12 A national primary, the most far-
reaching plan, would resemble the general election, with participants selecting
nominees on a single day. Regional primary plans and standardizing proposals would
require less change, but they would take different approaches. Most regional primary
proposals would set specific, staggered dates for holding events. More recent regional
proposals are those that would group states by geographic region, by time zone, or
by population (the Delaware Plan, for example).13 A window plan sets a time frame
for selecting delegates but leaves the specific choice of date and method — either a
primary or caucus — to the states or state parties.
State election officials and the national party committees (jointly) sought to
change the nominating system for the 2004 election cycle. After two years of study,
the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) endorsed a regional primary14
proposal on February 12, 1999. Under the NASS plan, Iowa and New Hampshire
“would retain their leading positions in the presidential selection process based on
past tradition,” to be followed by regional primaries in the East, South, Midwest, and
West during March, April, May, and June.15 The regional order would rotate every
four years.
Legislative Considerations
Several bills have been introduced in the 110th Congress to provide for an
interregional system of Presidential primaries and caucuses (one state from each
region), or a regional system of primaries and caucuses. S. 1905 and H.R. 3487
would establish four regions and a series of dates for holding primaries and caucuses,
but would provide an exception for Iowa and New Hampshire. S. 2024 and H.R.

1523 would include all caucuses and primaries in an interregional plan for holding

12 Congress has never approved legislation to reform the nominating process, although more
than 300 such bills have been introduced since the adoption of the primary.
13 David S. Broder, “Coordinated Primaries?” Washington Post, March 16, 2000, p. A7.
14 “NASS Backs Rotating Regional Presidential Primary Dates,” Election Administration
Reports vol. 29, no. 4, February 15, 1999.
15 National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), “State Officials Approve Regional
Presidential Primary Plan,” retrieved from NASS website on March 9, 2000 (no longer
available). A description of the plan may be found at [
?option=com_content&task=view&id=74&It emid=210].

the events. The Senate Rules Committee held a hearing on S. 1905 on September 19,


Although Congress has authority to regulate the timing of congressional and
presidential elections, arguably including presidential primaries, some observers
maintain that congressional efforts to prescribe the methods of choosing national
convention delegates may be restricted by the parties’ constitutional rights of free
association.17 For nearly two centuries, the parties have determined their methods of
choosing nominees without federal oversight and might resist a system imposed by
Congress. Also, legislative action may not achieve the expected results. Were
Congress to establish regional primaries or a national primary, for example, state
parties whose interests were not served by the new system might switch to the caucus
method in an effort to circumvent Congress. Alternately, a federally designed system
might succeed in imposing order on a complex and controversial system.
A federally mandated calendar for primaries might be resisted for a variety of
other reasons. First, elections are expensive, and states often hold their presidential
primary together with their state primary to save money. Second, some states
schedule primaries to accommodate state legislative sessions or to meet other
scheduling needs. Third, some states have a traditional primary date that determines
the election cycle for candidates at all levels of government. A federally mandated
primary date, which might be subject to change every four years, could create
ongoing scheduling problems in states that hold a single, combined primary.
Complaints about the nominating system usually peak just after the election
season has concluded, when observers assess how well the system functioned. In this
climate, proposed changes tend to address the perceived problems recently
encountered. The long-term implications of such adjustments often receive less
debate. Notably, a victory in the general election often tempers the views of party
activists who criticized the process in the spring and summer.
Revision and experimentation with the presidential nominating system
continues, building upon the reforms of the 1970s. This continual revision, which
sometimes causes confusion, nonetheless demonstrates the flexibility of the system
and, at least in theory, promises a result that stems from competition and evolution.
It is an open question, however, whether a new system could better accomplish the
task of selecting candidates who are the choice of most party voters. Even more in
doubt is the extent to which such changes would alleviate broader complaints about
the presidential nominating process — turnout, the negative perception of the
media’s role in the process, the influence of organized interest groups, the high cost
of campaigns, and the reluctance of potential candidates to enter the contest.

16 The hearing record my be found at [].
17 See William G. Mayer testimony before the Senate Rules Committee, at
[ hearings /2007/091907hrg.htm] .