When President Truman called the Presidential primary system "eyewash," he was facing facts as well as inviting brickbats. For primaries are too diluted to give voters a real voice in selecting Presidential nominees, and their results often distort the nation's Presidential preferences.
Ideally, the Democratic and Republican standard bearers in the Presidential campaign should be the men desired by the majority of the voters of their parties. But the present half-hearted primary system does little justice to the voters' will.
Thirty-two states have no Presidential primaries at all. Only three states bind their convention delegates to a certain candidate, and in only one of these--Oregon--must the delegates vote for the man who wins the preferential primary. As a result, the party bosses make the real choice. Rather than nominating the people's choices, they usually offer only a choice between mediocrities.
Moreover the nation's political eye is focused on the few states that have genuine primary contests, watching for a bona fide expression of popular sentiment. This gives states like New Hampshire a wholly disproportionate influence on the presidential choice. Wendell Willkie, for example, was out of the running for the Republican nomination after the Wisconsin primary in 1944. Oregon voters applied the same deathblow to Harold Stassen in 1948. These men might have been the real choice of the nation's Republicans, but Wisconsin and Oregon dissented, and the rest of the nation was electorally speechless. It may be that the country folk of New Hampshire will do likewise to Dwight Eisenhower.
In an attempt to strengthen the primary system, Senator Smathers of Florida has proposed a Constitutional amendment that would eliminate the convention system of selecting Presidential nominees and substitute direct primaries, to be held the same day in every state. Under the Amendment, each state would have a "nominating vote" equal to the number of Senators and Representatives the state has in Congress. Each candidate would receive in the primary nominating votes proportional to his popular vote in each state. The man with the most votes would be his party's nominee.
So far, Congressmen have greeted this plan with more apathy than criticism. But Senator Taft, who has as much of a vested interest in keeping the politician control of nominations as any other present candidate, has attacked the amendment on two points: the primaries would be held too early for candidates' views to jell (under the Smathers Amendment, primaries would be held the first week in June. Present conventions are in July, but primary campaigning starts in February); and the financial rigors of nation-wide primary campaigning would limit the chances of men without strong financial support. While the latter criticism is sound, the inequity would be no worse than it is now.
Nevertheless, the Smathers proposal would, if passed, be a most effective measure for electoral democracy since direct election of Senators. Congress should approve it and send it to the state legislatures for ratification. We hope it will get through in time to prevent another political puppet show in 1956.