Opinions - 22.03.2016 - 00:00 

E Pluribus Unum: the American primary races

Until the two presidential contenders are nominated at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in July, the contestants trek from state to state, from Alabama to Wyoming, watched closely by voters and the media. An opinion piece by Claudia Franziska Brühwiler.
Source: HSG Newsroom


23 March 2016. The primary races are one of the idiosyncrasies of the American system that has democratized the election of candidates – albeit only a few decades ago. “The American people have accepted the presidential contest as part of their entertainment life. …

The people expect drama, pathos, intrigue, conflict, and they expect it to hang together as a dramatic package,” observed political strategist and advisor of the Democratic Party, Charles Guggenheim, who supported Adlai Stevenson, later the UN ambassador, in his unsuccessful campaign in the 1950s. The part of the elections that Stevenson and his contemporaries experienced differently from their political heirs is now characterized by special entertainment value: the primary contests.

Coronation or democracy?

Unity is demanded at the national party conventions, which is why all candidates ask their delegates to give their votes to the winner of the primary races. Thus, the national conventions are more of a coronation ceremony than a voting event. But this was not always the case: Until the 1970s, one could say that the actual primary election took place at the party conventions.

Even if a candidate had not faced the voters’ opinion in a single state, he could secure the nomination, if the party elite supported him – as happened in 1968, when Hubert Humphrey received the Democrats’ election ticket, while there were riots outside the party convention. In an earlier time, Theodore Roosevelt complained during his attempt for a third term that the few primaries held back then were not binding.

The alleged outsider

With the democratization of the primaries began the rise of a type of candidate that previously was doomed to fail because of the veto by the party elite: The (alleged) outsider. From the hapless libertarian-conservative Barry Goldwater to the later ideal Republican Ronald Reagan, more and more candidates emphasized their distance from Washington and the elitist/clannish inner circles of power.

Still, for a long time, the same rules of the primaries applied. First, the one who had most support from his party’s members of Congress was most likely to triumph. Second, the candidate had to be able to identify those groups among the loyal voters that concur with his basic attitude, but also had to present himself as acceptable to the center at an early stage.

Exceptions to the rule

During the current Republican primaries, this recipe seems hardly promising: While, as usual, all candidates characterize themselves as outsiders, the two leading ones actually are. Senator Ted Cruz gets no support whatsoever from his colleagues in Congress, and Donald Trump sees the party only as another stage he can play skillfully without submitting to the rules.

Many observers lament the Republican leadership’s loss of control. Others outright hope that, once again, there could be a national party convention that offers a political contest rather than a completely staged coronation ceremony. However the race ends after the California primaries in June, it will change the “Grand Old Party” in the long term. Until then, the motto is: The show must go on.

Dr. rer. publ. Claudia Franziska Brühwiler is a political scientist with a main focus on American Studies.

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