Delegate Watch


Beyond 2000



The End of the Presidential Primary Process As We Know It?

The frontloading problem--the rush of states to hold early presidential primaries so as to have a voice in the selection of the nominees--worsened in 2000, prompting many to call for reform of the primary process for 2004 and subsequent elections. 

Observers also expressed concern about low turnout in the primaries.  During the 2000 presidential primaries, Democratic turnout was the second lowest in history (only Clinton's 1996 re-election had lower turnout).  Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Democratic state parties in Arizona, Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina and Washington had to opt out of February primaries because those dates violated the DNC's March-June window.  (The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee declined to grant these state parties waivers to go early, thus forcing them to hold party-run contests at later dates and at considerable expense). 

Meanwhile Republicans experienced high turnout in the primaries, but GOP party regulars were concerned that open primaries allowed the Democrats to have a say in choosing their nominee.  Finally,The fact that both major party nominations were effectively settled on March 7 could not help but depress turnout in the many states that held primaries after March 7.

There are several possible avenues of change in the primary process, most of which seek to address the frontloading issue.

  • The National Association of Secretaries of State advocated a rotating regional primary system [NASS Plan]. The proposal would create a system of four regional primaries to be held in March, April, May and June of 2004, while maintaining the first positions of Iowa and New Hampshire.  Each election after 2004 the order of the regions would rotate.  However, this proposal would have to be approved by the individual state legislatures in order to take effect, somewhat limiting its prospects for implementation. 

  • Both major parties have conducted reviews of the primary process:

  • Democrats--In September 1999 DNC Chairman Joe Andrew asked the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee to examine the "Beyond 2000" question and present recommendations focusing on "how the scheduling of presidential primaries and caucuses can increase participation by Democratic voters in every state with the goal of nominating the strongest possible candidate."  The committee held its first meeting on November 20, 1999 and held four subsequent hearings before finalizing its recommendations in an April 29, 2000 meeting.

    The Rules and Bylaws Committee came forth with a rather timid proposal, recommending against a major overhaul of the primary system.  Instead, it favored negotiations with the RNC to ensure that the two parties' windows will coincide.  Members of the committee were concerned about the unintended consequences a radical change might entail and opted to "do no harm."  If successful, the modest bipartisan fix would resolve the situations faced by the handful of Democratic state parties mentioned above, but would not directly address frontloading pressure or the broader question of low turnout.  Indeed, one member of the committee stated, "We've basically codified the status quo...It's deja vu all over again."

    Republicans--In summer 1999 RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson appointed an Advisory Commission on Presidential Nominating Process chaired by former Sen. Bill Brock.  The group held its first meeting on August 17, 1999 and released its final report on May 2, 2000. 

    The Brock commission recommended the Delaware Plan or inverted pyramid plan, wherein the states would be divided by population into four groups; the smallest population states would go first, followed by the next group and so forth, finally finishing with the largest states.  This approach places a premium on retail politics.  The commission further recommended an end to winner-take-all primaries in favor of proportional allocation of delegates.  Other proposals were put forth by Ohio Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett--the Ohio Plan--and by Sen. Bob Smith (June 2000).  

    However, the Brock commission's Delaware Plan was defeated by a 66 to 33 vote in the RNC Rules Committee meeting held in late July in advance of the 2000 Republican National Convention.  (It would have also required approval of the full convention and cooperation of the states to take effect).

  • Finally, there are attempts to address the situation with federal legislation--Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced S.1789, the Regional Presidential Selection Act of 1999, on October 26, 1999; Rep. Sander Levin offered H.R. 4014, the Interregional Presidential Primary and Caucus Act of 2000, on March 16, 2000. 

The National Association of Secretaries of State took the lead in pushing for a more orderly presidential primary process.
April 29, 2000--The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee eschewed major changes, recommending that the two parties synchronize the windows during which presidential primaries are conducted.
May 2, 2000--Former Sen. Bill Brock announced the Republicans' far-reaching reform plan, which, if adopted would divide the states by population into four groups.


Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.