Scrap The Primary System, Polls Say

generic vote ballot election 2008 box CBS/AP/iStockphoto

By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys


Are voters satisfied with the election process — or do they think things are happening too early?

In last Sunday's Republican presidential debate, the candidates looked far ahead to the general election in 2008: They attacked Democrats, but also carefully distanced themselves from President Bush. It was almost as if each candidate was trying out what he might say when (and if) he faces the Democratic nominee next year.

In theory, the primary contest should be an appeal to the party's base, with the candidates moving to the center only after they are nominated. But apparently they are beginning their Autumn 2008 behavior a year early.

There is some evidence that voters like this change. Their level of attention to the campaign is higher now than in the past. Seventy percent of registered voters are paying attention — four years ago, fewer than 50 percent were paying attention. Now, 24 percent are paying a lot of attention. Four years ago, just 15 percent were. In 1999, only 8 percent were paying a lot of attention at this point in the campaign.

And voter satisfaction with their options is high — at least among Democrats: 61 percent of Democratic primary voters are satisfied with their candidates, while only 36 percent of Republican primary voters are.

But there is a lot of skepticism about the process, too. We still have six months to go before the first primary contests. And in judging that process, voters are as negative as they ever have been.

In the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, conducted in mid-July, 51 percent of all registered voters said changes in the primary system, with states moving up their selection process, would make absolutely no difference in the quality of the eventual nominees — they would be no better nor worse than they have been in the past. Eighteen percent thought the speeded-up process would make things better because more states would have a say in who is nominated, but even more, 29 percent, said it would make things worse by limiting the amount of time voters would have to get to know the candidates. Republican and Democratic voters had pretty much the same responses, and so did voters in those states that moved up their primary dates this year.

Voters aren't particularly happy with who gets to make their selections first, either. When it comes to the role of Iowa and New Hampshire, now scheduled to begin the nominating process on Jan. 14 (Iowa) and Jan. 22 (New Hampshire), voters don't want those states to have any more influence than they do now. Fifty-one percent want them to have less. Democrats have long criticized the prominence of Iowa and New Hampshire in their selection process — both states have few minority voters and are more rural than typical Democratic strongholds. But Republicans are just as likely to criticize the first states, too. Always the voice of experience, older voters are more likely than younger voters to be negative about the first states' advantages.

Do voters have a better way to select a nominee? For nearly 20 years, seven out of 10 have said the same thing — that it would be better to have one national primary day with all states holding their primaries at the same time. In this year's poll, 72 percent say they want a national primary. Only 20 percent prefer the current system. Those results are indistinguishable from what voters said in polls conducted in 2000, 1996 and 1988. And once again, there are no significant differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Why do voters want a national primary? Just as it has little to do with this year's election, it is also not a reaction to states moving up their primary dates. Voters who applaud those moves are just as likely to want a national primary as those who don't.

It does have something to do with how voters assess the two early states, Iowa and New Hampshire. Although six in 10 of those who don't think those two states have too much influence would prefer a national primary to the current system, that percentage rises to 81 percent among those who do see Iowa and New Hampshire as mattering too much.

Probably what makes voters want a national primary is, most of all, a sense of fairness — that everyone should have a chance to participate equally. The public takes similar positions when it comes to the general election. They object to the projection of election returns before polls are closed, and have long supported a uniform poll closing: 73 percent across the country told CBS News in December 2000 that they favored setting a single poll closing time on election night, to make all polling places across the country close at the exact same moment. In that same poll, 71 percent supported having a single method of voting so that every polling place in the country would have the same rules and would conduct elections in the same way. Just 25 percent thought that voting process should be determined by states and counties.

So what voters really want is what they always want — that every state and every voter should have the same opportunity to matter.
By Kathy Frankovic
  • David Miller

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