"Some Numerical Metric"

04/24/2008 01:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My column, a follow-up on the ongoing debate over counting the "popular vote" in the Democratic primary contest, is now online.

In the column, I quoted a passage from an article by the late Austin Ranney about the intent of the McGovern-Fraser commission whose reforms following the 1968 election helped create the current presidential primary system. The quote appeared in the following article: "Changing the Rules of the Presidential Nominating Game: Party Reform in American," in Parties and Elections, ed. Jeff Fishel ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978). I found it in Rhodes Cook's invaluable volume, The Presidential Nominating Process, A Place for Us? (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).

As the Ranney article is not available online, I thought readers might appreciate seeing the complete quote with a bit more context. In 1968, only 13 states held primaries that were dominated by two candidates: Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy who received 39% and 31%, respectively, of the popular vote cast in those primaries, respectively. Hubert Humphrey received only 2% of the primary vote. Yet at the time of Kennedy's death just after the final California primary, Humphrey had 561 delegates to 393 for Kennedy and 258 for McCarthy. Humphrey ultimately won his nomination on the first ballot with the support of 1759 delegates.

According to Rhode Cook's account, the McGovern-Fraser Commission was the result of efforts to "mollify" the supporters of Kennedy and McCarthy who "vociferously complained of the archaic, anti-democratic state-delegate selection processes that the boosted Humphrey, and of ham-handed tactics by party leaders at the convention that maintained Humphrey's delegate majority and their control of the party conventions" (p. 42). The commission was "well stocked with proponents of reform," but was "short on representatives from organized labor and the party's urban machines that could be counted on to defend the status quo" (p. 43).

Here is the full passage from the Ranney article (p. 220):

I well remember that the first thing we members of the Democratic party's McGovern-Fraser commission (1969-72) agreed on -- and about the only matter on which we approached unanimity -- was that we did not want a national presidential primary or any great increase in the number of state primaries. Indeed, we hoped to prevent any such development by reforming the delegate-selection rules to that the party's non-primary processes would be open and fair, participation in them would greatly increase, and consequently the demand for more primaries would fade away. And most of us were confident that our guidelines would accomplish all these ends.

But we got a rude shock. After our guidelines were promulgated in 1969 no fewer than eight states newly adopted presidential primaries, and by 1972 well over two-thirds of all the delegates were chosen or bound by them. Moreover, in 1973 Congress was considering a national presidential primary more seriously than ever before. Of course, it cannot be said that the guidelines were the sole cause for the proliferation of primaries. But we do know that in a majority of the eight cases the state Democratic primaries, who controlled the governorships and both houses of the legislature, decided that rather than radically revise their accustomed ways of conducting caucuses and conventions for other party matters, it would be better to split off the process for selecting national convention delegates and let it be conducted by a state-administered primary which the national party would then have to accept.

Ranney went on to consider arguments for and against primaries. After noting that a May 1972 Gallup poll showed 72% of Americans favoring a national primary, he presented a rationale for the minority view (p. 222):

Other Americans, however, believe that a national primary would do more harm than good. It would put an even greater premium than at present on large-scale mass media advertising, polling, public relations expertise and all the other costly features of "the new politics." An this, in turn, would put a premium on big money. Moreover, it would restrict most citizens to just one form of participation in the nominating process, and that would not be healthy for them for for the nation. People of this persuasion therefore agree with the McGovern-Fraser commission's conclusion that "purged of its structural and procedural inadequacies, the National Convention is an institution worth preserving."

I included the shorter reference to Ranney's recollections in the column, and the longer version here, not because they suggest any particular resolution to the debate about the "popular vote" but because they add some interesting and often ironic context. Partisans on both sides will see support for their positions in this history, but it is still history worth knowing.