The primary season plays a very important role in American politics. While the caucus system was predominant, party bosses could effectively decide who the delegates voted for. This was hardly democratic but the man who was the favoured candidate had little to worry about with regards to the primary season. This quite obviously is no longer the case and the primaries now take far greater importance: for example, 77% of the votes cast by Republican delegates in 1988 came from those selected by primaries. Party leaders can no longer ignore these primaries.
Sine 1952 the primary in the state of New Hampshire has been the first and most important as it gives an indication of public opinion with regards to the voters. A candidate must do well here as a failure to do so could mean a drastic fall in that candidate’s financial status as backers might pull out and potential backers would not wish to back a non-starter. Also a failure in the New Hampshire primary might just seal the fate of that candidate who might get labelled a failure even before the nomination contest has got underway.
A failure will also do a lot to affect party support. New Hampshire has jealously guarded its position as the first state to declare who has won the party nominations and it has pushed the date of the primary election earlier and earlier. In fact, the state legislature has stated that the primary must be one week before any other state primary. In the 1996 election it was held in February. The election was in November.
The next most important date is in March when “Super Tuesday” takes place. This is when 21 states declare their nominations. A candidate can be made or broken on this day. The first “Super Tuesday” was on 8th March 1988 and it is held on the second Tuesday in March. As most of the 21 states are southern, traditionally this is a good time for southern candidates. In 1992, Bill Clinton (Arkansas) won practically all the nominations available.
In 1996, the mid-western states of Illinois, Michigan and Ohio held their primaries on the third Tuesday in March. This was done as an attempt to boost the importance of these three states which had been seen as something of a backwater politically.
California is a vital state to win. Traditionally, its primary was held in June but in 1996, it was moved to March. Winning here is very important as the state sends 20% of all the delegates to both party’s national conventions. The move to March was meant to symbolise how important this state is politically regardless of “Super Tuesday”. New York state has its primary in April. By then, America will have a reasonably good idea as to who the Democrats and Republicans nominations are.
The so-called “primary season” requires candidates to involve themselves in an intensive media campaign. From February to the end of April there is no time to raise finance and this has to be done before the primaries. This need for finance allows the better known candidates more leeway as they will be better financed and therefore have more time to campaign. They are also likely to have built up a better rapport and connections with the media and they will be able to use it to their advantage.
At this time the candidates are practically by themselves and they only receive party support when it is obvious that as a candidate they have the potential to attract public support across the nation. A candidate who is not viable is not going to receive this support. A candidate who does not have the necessary financial backing will find the going extremely tough as regional primaries such as in the mid-west are expensive and to keep a campaign in the field will cost a great deal. Candidates have to adhere to the financial regulations laid down by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974.
How well do incumbent presidents do in primaries ? Clinton did well enough to not be opposed at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Other presidents who wish to stand again have not done as well. Lyndon Johnson in 1968, withdrew from the Democrat’s nomination process after doing badly at the New Hampshire primary. He won just over 50% of the votes cast and he was expected to do a lot better. He suffered on the backlash that was occurring against the Vietnam. Sensing a weakened candidate, Robert Kennedy, who had been Attorney-General under his brother, announced his entry into the race and Johnson withdrew his candidacy. History tends to indicate that recent presidents who seek re-election but experience a significant challenge in the primaries usually lose the election itself – Ford (1976), Carter (1980) and Bush (1992) seem to indicate this.