Expert Commentary

The “invisible primary” and its effects on democratic choice

2010 study from Duke University in PS: Political Science on the dynamics of the U.S. presidential nominating system.

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

About The Author