Vox Populi
A Letter to the Editor

More about a National Primary with a Runoff
Friday, November 28, 2003

by Warren Schiff

I just finished reading Jeffrey Wetmore's 'vox Populi' in which he suggested a National Primary by which presidential candidates would be nominated by each Party with a runoff (to be held, I presume, only a few weeks after this Primary) if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote in the Primary. I also noticed that Richard Berg-Andersson stated, in his response to Mr. Wetmore, that this "40 percent runoff"- as I'll call it- was the most common version of the National Primary being proposed by those putting forth this idea.

My question is this: Given the fact that the National Conventions of both Major Parties require a majority [50 percent of the total vote, plus 1 vote] of the delegate votes in order to nominate someone for President (or, for that matter, Vice-President), how can such a "40 percent runoff" possibly be justified? Either there should be a runoff if no one gets a majority of the vote in a National Primary or there should be no runoff at all (where a simple plurality for the top vote-getter should prevail)!

Warren Schiff

San Ramon, California

Mr. Berg-Andersson responds:

First of all, the 40 percent threshold for a runoff happens to also be a part of the major proposal that was once made re: Direct Election of the President and Vice-President, as pointed out in my now-nearly three year old Commentary on Electoral College reform. It appears that this threshold was chosen principally because, to those making this reform proposal, it potentially would keep the number of runoffs in such a direct Presidential Election to a relative minimum while, at the same time, making sure that the persons who were to be elected to these highest Executive offices in the Nation through the device of a Direct Election would be chosen by a significant plurality of the voters whenever an outright majority could not, in the end, be attained. I suppose that much the same logic would, almost by mere definition, accrue to a potential National Presidential Nominating Primary such as Mr. Wetmore brought up in his 21 November 'vox Populi'.

One must be quite cautious when applying the total votes cast in Presidential Primaries in past election cycles to the problem: those who vote in Presidential Primaries are voting at various times throughout the late Winter, Spring and into early Summer preceding the Major Parties' National Conventions (with the result that more than a few candidates on the ballot in the earliest Primaries likely are not at all viable as potential presidential nominees come the last Primaries); in addition, not all States or equivalent jurisdictions being represented at the National Conventions even hold Primaries (thus, at present, not every voter who could conceivably participate in a Party's delegate selection process is counted among the totals resulting from all the Presidential Primaries added together). Nevertheless, these statistics are- in the main- rather instructive!

Taking only the aggregate vote in the Presidential Primaries for each Party in each year since 1976 (the very first year that more States were holding Presidential Primaries than the number not doing so) and, further, only looking at contested races (that is, not considering races where an incumbent President was largely unchallenged in his bid for re-nomination), we find the following:

in 1976, Jimmy Carter, the Democratic nominee, won only 38.8 percent of his Party's total Presidential Primary vote: this would have engendered a runoff between him and the second-place finisher (Jerry Brown, with 15.3 percent) had this been the result of a National Presidential Nominating Primary (though one should view this figure with caution: then-California Governor Brown jumped into the nomination race about halfway through the Primaries [back when one could still do this and have an at least somewhat realistic shot at the nomination]-- one wonders what the percentages might have been had there been a National Primary with only those competing in the New Hampshire Primary in 1976 on the ballot!)... meanwhile, on the Republican side, the re-nominated President Gerald Ford bested his nearest rival, Ronald Reagan, with a decisive majority of 53.3 percent of the total Primary vote to Reagan's 45.9 percent.

four years later, in 1980, both nominees- President Carter on the Democratic side, Ronald Reagan on the Republican side- had majorities in the total Presidential Primary vote (Carter had 51.2 percent to Edward Kennedy's 37.1 percent; Reagan had 60.8 percent- far outdistancing his nearest Republican rival, George H.W. Bush with 23.3 percent).

1984 saw, on the Democratic side (Republican incumbent President Reagan was unchallenged for re-nomination that year), the closest margin in total Presidential Primary vote so far: eventual nominee Walter Mondale had 37.8 percent to Gary Hart's 36.1 percent and, had this been the result of a National Primary with the 40 percent threshold, a Mondale vs. Hart runoff would have been indicated.

in 1988, Republican nominee George H.W. Bush outdistanced Robert Dole by 67.9 percent to 19.2 percent of the total Primary vote; for the Democrats, nominee Michael Dukakis bested Jesse Jackson by 42.8 percent to 29.1 percent.

1992 saw Bill Clinton taking a majority of the total Presidential Primary vote, 51.8 percent to 20.1 percent for his nearest Democratic rival (Jerry Brown, finishing second again), while 1996 saw Republican Robert Dole win a solid majority of 59.2 percent to Pat Buchanan's second place 21.2 percent.

2000 gave each Major Party's nominee a solid majority in the Presidential Primaries: Democrat Al Gore took 76.0 percent of the total (leaving Bill Bradley in the dust with a mere 20.0 percent), while Republican George W. Bush bested John McCain 61.9 percent to 31.1 percent.

Again, one should not lose sight of my earlier caveats re: applying these statistics to the issue of whether or not 40 percent would be an appropriate threshold in order for a candidate to avoid a National Presidential Nominating Primary runoff; however, as long as such caveats are kept well in mind, I think these statistics strongly indicate that there would have likely been, at most, 2 runoffs in 11 competitive presidential nominating races (1976 Democrats and 1984 Democrats) had a 40 percent threshold been applied to a National Primary at the time: the only nominating race of the remaining 9 which would have gone to a runoff, had a pure majority [50 percent, plus 1 vote] in a National Primary been required, would have been (again, using these admittedly imperfect figures) the one for the 1988 Democratic nomination. In favor of those who would not want to see a runoff at all in any National Presidential Nominating Primary is the fact that- in none of these 11 competitive nominating races between 1976 and 2000- did the eventual nominee fail to win a plurality of the total Presidential Primary vote.

However, all this number-crunching is still highly speculative... besides, as I already indicated to Mr. Wetmore as regards the likelihood of there someday even being such a National Presidential Nominating Primary:

"Ain't happenin' !"


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