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April 6, 2000 Contact: Melissa Ring (617) 496-9761

Tired And Locked Out Of Nominating Process, Americans Seek Change

Voter Involvement Index Survey Methodology

Americans would like a different presidential nominating process in 2004. They are reasonably satisfied with the major-party nominees, but not with the process by which they were selected. Americans' disenchantment is such that they would narrowly prefer even a return to the days when presidential nominees were chosen by party activists at the national conventions.

The public's favorite alternative nominating system is a single national primary. When asked in the most recent Shorenstein Center weekly national poll, 56% said they would prefer a system by which "all states held their primary on the same day in May or early June" to the current arrangement. Only 32% indicated they like the current system better than a national primary.

Americans would also prefer a system of rotating regional primaries to the current system. Forty-seven percent opted for a regional primary system, while 39% said they would rather stay with the present system. In the regional system, the states would be apportioned into four regions, each of which would hold all of its primaries and caucuses on the same day. A lottery would be used to determine which region would start the process, and in subsequent presidential elections, each region would take its turn in the first position.

Underlying Americans' preference for a change in the nominating process is a belief that the current system takes too long. Nearly twice as many respondents in the latest Shorenstein Center poll said that "the campaign is too long" as said they "prefer a long campaign." Part of the appeal of the national primary is that it would reduce the campaign by several months. "For most Americans the presidential campaign process is simply too long, and they seem willing to consider almost any reasonable way of shortening it," says Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project.

Americans also believe that the current system is not fair to all the states. In 2000, the nominations were effectively decided in the Super Tuesday primaries of March 7. Voters in one or both parties in thirty-five states had yet to cast their ballots and thus had no real voice in the selection. A national primary would give voters in all states an opportunity to influence the outcome.

A national primary, however, has its drawbacks. The Shorenstein Center polls conducted weekly since early November indicate that most Americans do not pay much attention to the campaign or learn much about the candidates until the first contests are held in Iowa and New Hampshire. It is questionable whether the American public would pay close attention to the campaign in advance of a national primary. If not, the outcome might hinge on the candidates' abilities to raise the large amount of money required for a national advertising campaign.

Nevertheless, public dissatisfaction with the current nominating system is stimulating change. Both the Republican and Democratic national parties are actively exploring alternatives to the current system, and the secretaries of state in more than 30 states have proposed a regional primary system for 2004.

  Voter Involvement Index
Mar. 29-Apr. 2 25%
Mar. 22-26 27%
Mar. 15-19 30%
Mar. 10-14 37%
Mar. 8-12 46%
Mar. 1-5 38%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll
Sampling error: ±6%

Americans' dissatisfaction runs so deep that many seem willing even to sacrifice their role in the primaries and open caucuses for a shorter and more orderly process. When asked whether they preferred the current system or the "old system" in which party activists from all the states met in the national conventions to choose the nominees, a plurality 43% to 40% opted for the "old system." "The dissatisfaction is genuine and widespread so much so that many Americans now seem ready to go back to the old smoke-filled rooms and let the party pros do the selecting of the nominees," says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and the Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington Office.

The results reported here are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,013 adults conducted March 29, 2000 April 2, 2000. The survey has a sampling error of ±3%. The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.

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