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Salient: An organ of student opinion at Victoria University, Wellington. Vol. 23, No. 5. Wednesday, June 15, 1960

U.S. Presidential Election: Primaries and Personalities

page 9

U.S. Presidential Election: Primaries and Personalities

The U.S. is this year engaged in the absorbing ritual of choosing its President for the next four years. One of the most interesting aspects of this is the activity that takes place Before the parties select their candidates. Part of this manoeuvring in the parties can be seen by the public—in primary election campaigns—but much of it goes on behind the scenes, in the proverbial "smokefilled rooms" where politicians gather to do business. The public part—the primaries—is apt to be a bit confusing even to Americans, so it is not surprising that most New Zealanders are completely in the dark about it. We get little enough enlightenment from our daily press, which seems to feel that a bare minimum of U.S. news is all that we need. Those days are past, for party policies in the U.S. can have important implications for us. We are all wondering about the proposed nuclear test ban which could easily become an election issue, and a high tariff policy, foreign aid cuts, and tougher terms for dollar aid overseas that could make life less comfortable for all of us.

Dick and Pat in Nebraska.

Dick and Pat in Nebraska.

Colourful And Exciting

There is also the fact that American political campaigns are some of the must colourful and exciting in the world, and this contributes just as much to our interest. This year's campaign will not be as rough as some in the past, when candidates' drinking habits and the origin of a Cabinet member's wifeonce played parts, but it will be tough and bitter, particularly since the Republicans seem sure to nominate Richard Nixon as their candidate, and few Democrats can resist taking a swing at "Tricky Dicky."

What Is A "Primary"?

Nixon does not have to light primaries, since his position is almost impregnable in his own party, but some of the Democrats have been using them as a means of building up their popular appeal, and Senator Humphrey's defeat in the West Virginian primary seems to have knocked him out of the race. What is a "primary?" Primary elections are used in some, not all, American states to sort out candidates for an election within the parties. They were introduced in the early years of the century by people who wanted to lake this choice out of the hands of the machine politicians, and give it back to the people. That was the intention, but the effects have often been quite different. It is a peculiarly American innovation—it is hard to imagine the Labour Party for instance, being very happy about having Mr Holloway's successor as Labour candidate selected by a poll of Heretaunga citizens instead of by the party's own selection committee. Yet the American way has some advantages, for it avoids the worst excesses of "boss" control of a party, rarely seen here, and gives the ordinary party supporters some say in who their candidate is to be. Primary elections in the U.S., however, are closely regulated by the stale, a very unusual instance of interference by the state in the affairs of an unofficial association. However, most Americans feel that the importance of the affair justifies the interference. Each state makes its own rules as to when and how the primaries are held, and the rules vary from state is between "open" and "closed" primaries. In the latter, which most states have, people may vote for candidates for nomination in one party only, and they must have registered as party members some time in advance. When they vote, therefore, they are given a ballot paper for one party only. However, in some states, no party test is made and you are given two ballot papers and can choose which one you will vote with. This is an "open" primary, and there is nothing to stop, for instance, Republicans voting in the Democratic primary to spoil the chances of some Democrat they particularly dislike. This may have happened at Wisconson, one of the states with the open primary, where it is thought that many Republicans voted, in the Democratic primary against Senator Humphrey, thereby ensuring victory for Senator Kennedy. This is even more likely since Nixon was unopposed on the Republican ballot, so that no Republican primary was really necessary at all.

Compromise Candidates

This is one disadvantage of the primaries. The other is that many powerful candidates choose to stay out of them altogether. This year, among the Democrats, Senators Johnson and Symington have done this in the hope that Kennedy and Humphrey would either knock each other out of the race or stalemate each other, leaving the field clear to a compromise candidate at the party's convention. Both fancy themselves in such a role. However, despite the partial truth of ex-President Truman's irate statement that "primaries are eyewash," they do provide a good means of letting a candidate get his name, face and ideas known to the electorate. Johnson and Symington may be doing themselves harm from this point of view.

July Convention

The end result, in practical terms, is that in July, when the Democratic Convention meets to choose its Presidential candidate, delegates from sixteen states will be bound in advance, by the primary results, to vote for a particular candidate. Kennedy has at the moment about half the delegate votes he needs for nomination, and naturally many of the "uncommitted" once are leaning his way. However, although a serious primary defeat may ruin a candidate's chances, as Humphrey's have been by the West Virginia result, it does not follow that a string of primary victories means success. In 1952 Senator Kefauver arrived at the Democratic Convention, after winning all the primaries, with nearly 400 delegate votes. Yet Stevenson, who had entered none of the primaries, was nominated. This was possible because delegates are not committed after the second ballot, and Kefauver's support melted away after the first two. There was a mass move to Stevenson on the third. Sometimes the convention balloting is prolonged, as in 1924 when the Democratic Convention tried one hundred and four ballots before it finally settled for an unknown compromise candidate. The Republicans won the election that year.

The same thing, or a milder version of it, might happen this year, for many of the Democratic professionals dislike Kennedy and fear that his Catholicism might lose the party votes. As a liberal he is disliked by the conservative Southerners in the party. It, therefore, is possible that he will be replaced by one of the dark horses lurking in the wings waiting to assume the role of compromise candidate. The most one can say at the moment is that Kennedy is front runner for the Democratic nomination, but the possibility of a "Stop Kennedy" movement getting under way in the party is a serious one, despite his primary successes. On the Republican side, however, there seems to be no opposition to Nixon, even though his only serious rival, Governor Rockefeller,, appears to be making a comeback. —J.D.