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Primaries are what keep the GOP out of the White House

The rise of such non-traditional Republican presidential hopefuls as Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — all non-politicians — has many political pundits insisting the 2016 election is unique. But the truth is exactly the opposite: The GOP is on a well-worn path, followed since King Primary replaced King Convention as the preferred method for selecting presidential nominees.

Republican voters, as opposed to party power-brokers, began effectively picking the party’s presidential nominee in 1964. Conservative populist Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona upset the establishment favorite, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, in the defining California primary. Since then, GOP presidential-primary outcomes fall into three distinct and fascinating results

1) Every sitting Republican president eligible to seek another term won re-nomination: Richard M. Nixon in 1972, Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2004.


President Ronald Reagan addressing a news conference in Washington D.C., October 19, 1983. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon

2) Every non-incumbent Republican primary winner who went on to win the general election would likely have been chosen by the party bosses anyway and so nominated by the old boss-controlled conventions. Nixon, the establishment choice, was a former vice president who faced little opposition in 1968. Reagan, a two-term California governor, was the overwhelming choice of Republicans across the nation in 1980. George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, was his anointed successor in 1988. Twelve years later, his son, Texas Governor George W. Bush, the clear establishment choice, beat back a serious challenge from anti-establishment maverick Senator John McCain of Arizona.

3) Every Republican non-incumbent primary winner who then went on to lose the general election almost surely would not have survived a multi-ballot convention process, traditionally geared to find a consensus choice able to win the White House. Goldwater’s attacks on the “liberal Eastern Establishment” alienated key party leaders and crucial state delegations. Former Senator Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP nominee, previously lost as the vice-presidential nominee in 1976 and made failed presidential runs in 1980 and 1988. GOP leaders had never backed a three-time loser. Party bosses also had scant interest in supporting McCain in 2008, or former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2012. They both won the primaries largely by default, when more credible challengers declined to enter the GOP primary demolition derby. At a boss-run national convention, neither man would likely have been the final choice.

Those who killed the convention process and installed primary contests as the decider claimed the new format would ensure that the “will” of the people could prevail. But history has proven them wrong.


The 1896 Republican National Convention, which nominated William McKinley of Ohio as president. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Democratic Party’s connection to the defeated Confederacy, which had seceded from a Republican-led United States, made it a certain national loser until the Depression of 1873. But party bosses regrouped.

By 1876, GOP leaders realized they could no longer take winning for granted. They gathered at their national convention every four years to strategize about the best possible candidate. Given Ohio’s pivotal role in Electoral College math, they first looked to find a viable conservative presidential candidate from the Buckeye State. The formula produced five successful Republican non-incumbent winners: Rutherford Hayes in 1876; James Garfield in 1880; William McKinley in 1896; William Howard Taft in 1908 and Warren G. Harding in 1920. Another GOP non-incumbent winner, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, hailed from neighboring Indiana.

But the Great Depression transformed American politics. Democratic non-incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932 and held it for four terms. Democrats effectively held the White House through 1968, except for retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two terms, from 1953 through 1961.

About the time the primary process superseded the power of conventions, Roosevelt’s fabled New Deal coalition began to collapse. This gave the GOP a chance for a re-set.


Senator Mark Hanna, the Ohio power broker who helped secure the presidency for his friend William McKinley. Wikipedia/Commons

But primaries have proven a curse, not a cure, for Republican woes. The people’s choices who were nominated over party bosses’ objections invariably lost. When the bosses and primary voters agreed, however, those candidates won. The Republican National Committee has tinkered regularly with the primary rules. But this avoids confronting the basic problem: The primary process has undercut the GOP in its search for a winning presidential candidate.

Yet primaries have worked great for Democrats. This is the opposite of what top political scientists had predicted. They had expected that the party’s left wing would highjack the primary process and nominate unelectable liberals. Instead, moderates kept winning. Primaries gave the Democrats former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976, former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in 1992 and Senator Barack Obama in 2008. All three would have been unlikely to have been nominated at a Democratic National Convention.

Consider, no politician from the Deep South had been the presidential nominee since long before the Civil War. Clinton’s Gennifer Flowers scandal, which emerged during the New Hampshire primary, would have scared off party bosses from the untested governor. As for Obama, party bosses might have considered him unelectable once they viewed Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s videos. But Democratic Party voters proved better than the bosses when it came to picking winners.

Now comes the 2016 cycle. In days past, party bosses, concerned about the polling numbers of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the predicted front-runner, would likely have already anointed popular Ohio Governor John Kasich and told him to stay quiet, raise money and stop talking about Social Security, for gosh sakes. They would likely have chosen New Mexico’s Republican Governor Susana Martinez for vice president, although Florida Senator Marco Rubio might get the nod instead.

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Cruz, Trump and Carson talk during a break in the the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Senator Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson talk during a commercial break in the second official GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

As the bosses would know, these tickets could carry the Buckeye State, the Sunshine State and the 24 others won by Romney in 2012. This would give Republicans a 253 electoral vote base, 17 shy of the majority needed to take back the White House. It would still be uphill, though, given the Democrat’s Electoral College advantage.

But under the primary system, Kasich’s candidacy has barely a pulse, and Martinez is rarely mentioned for vice president. Primary voters want Trump or Carson, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex,) gaining as the choice of “real” conservatives. Party bosses running the convention would have written all three off long ago as certain losers.

So primaries may again create serious problems for the GOP. The party’s presidential candidates have lost the popular vote five out of the last six times. The GOP’s best showing has been 286 electoral votes, barely more than the 270 needed for a majority. But this includes three formerly Republican-leaning Rocky Mountain states — Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada — twice carried handily by Obama.

Trump, Carson and Cruz are all unlikely to be elected president in 2016. They would be lucky to win all the Romney states: They probably cannot win the four, possibly five, Obama states needed to reach the Oval Office. The party bosses who controlled the conventions would have known that.

Primary voters do not.