Looking Back, Americans Believe Their Role in the Nominating Process Was Secondary
The current presidential nominating system of state-by-state primaries and caucuses replaced an earlier convention-based one in which party leaders selected the nominees. When the system was adopted in the 1970s, it was heralded as placing control of nominations squarely in the hands of the electorate.
Today's voters, however, do not believe that their influence is decisive. In the latest Shorenstein Center weekly national poll, respondents were asked: "Do you think the current system of nominating presidential candidates gives the voters more say in choosing the nominees, or do you think that party leaders and the people who contribute money to the candidates have more say?" By nearly five-to-one (72% to 15%), respondents claimed that major contributors and party leaders have more influence. "It's natural for ordinary citizens to think moneyed interests have more clout and influence than they do," said Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington Office and co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project, of which the Shorenstein weekly poll is a component. "But by a 5 to 1 majority? That is eye opening."
The view that the voters' influence is secondary characterizes every demographic category, but there are some differences between groups. Independents are substantially more likely than partisans to claim that party leaders and large contributors are the true kingmakers. Nevertheless, more than two-thirds of Republicans and Democrats believe that the voters' influence on the nominations is secondary to that of party leaders and contributors. "Not one group of Americans believes that the voters hold the key to the nominations," says Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project. "Even if one believes that citizens underestimate their power, their opinion is itself revealing. They feel relatively powerless to affect a process that in theory at least is based on popular voting."
The results reported here are from nationwide telephone surveys of approximately 1,000 adults conducted November 14, 1999 June 11, 2000. The surveys have 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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