The Invisible Primary and Its Effects on Democratic Choice
Political scientists and journalists have long discussed the ways in which the early competition among candidates for campaign money determines eventual outcomes in the party presidential nominating contests. Known as the “invisible primary,” this process — which unfolds long before most citizens cast their votes — has developed in the wake of certain changes to the primary system made through the 1970s and 1980s. This altered landscape came about as a result, in part, of the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, party rules changes, and moves by individual candidates that escalated the money race.
A 2010 study from Duke University published in PS: Political Science, “The Invisible Primary and Its Effects on Democratic Choice,” looks at this issue from both an empirical and theoretical perspective. It sets out to examine how a certain “nomination elite” — officeholders, activists, resource providers, campaign specialists, media personnel — diminish “the role of the public to the point that it can barely be considered truly a democratic selection at all.”
The study’s key insights include:
- Since the 1970s, two factors have conspired to make it exceedingly difficult for outsiders to run and win. The first is the spiraling costs of campaigns, and the related development of major candidates sidestepping the federal matching funds system — which went into effect in 1976 — and raising huge sums of money independently. This has escalated since George W. Bush first declined matching funds in 2000.
- The second significant driver is the “frontloading” of the primary schedule and the awarding of delegates early on: “Lots more money is needed today than in 1976, and it is now needed much more quickly. Hence, early campaign building efforts move from valuable to essentially mandatory.”
- Another factor implicated in the “invisible primary” is the feedback loop created by perceived “momentum,” whereby “success in one primary spirals upward, through more positive media coverage, access to greater resources, and therefore more favorable reception by the public in the next primary or caucus.”
- The Internet fundraising success in 2008 of Barack Obama, which followed on the earlier such successes by John McCain in 2000 and Howard Dean in 2004, likely means an escalation of the money race: candidates are now able to raise funds “without having to go off the campaign trail and thereby having to trade off raising funds over campaigning for votes. In this sense, the most important lesson is that the campaign finance provisions that were for so long a critical part of the nomination system are now ineffective.”
- One way of countering the effects of the invisible primary would be for the national parties to move the voting window back: “Instead of having the window for delegate selection start in early March, February, or even January (or right after a moving target like New Hampshire), set the window to be open in, say, April and May. Allow Iowa and New Hampshire, and whatever other exceptions to the window are desired, if one wants, but make them be in, say, mid to late March. This shortens the campaign and places the end of the invisible primary into the same year as the visible one.”
- Another reform that could make a difference is to update campaign financing so “matching funds and spending limits are made sufficiently generous as to make acceptance of matching funds again realistic. A formula such as 110% of the last campaign in that state, for example, summed over all states, could be made available for matching funds.”
Tags: elections, presidential primary, Iowa/New Hampshire
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Duke University study "The Invisible Primary and Its Effects on Democratic Choice."
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
For a sense of the complex history of this issue, read the issue-related Washington Post article "Clinton Bid Heralds the Demise of Public Financing."
- How do these dynamics around the “invisible primary” and campaign finance potentially disrupt the democratic process? How can reporters work to cover and highlight this issue in the course of a campaign?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.