Another Fine Primary Mess

By on January 5th, 2012

Jack Lessenberry
Jack Lessenberry

Another Fine
Primary Mess

January 6, 2012
True, Michigan has money problems that have led to layoffs, the death of a popular college scholarship program and massive cuts in aid to education. But next month the state will spend millions to hold a presidential primary that violates national rules and in which only the Republican Party is taking part.
On top of that, the election may lack much significance. Detroit native Mitt Romney is heavily favored, and the result will only attract much attention if he doesn’t do well.
But it could be worse — and frequently has been in Michigan, the state that can’t seem to shoot straight when it comes to selecting national convention delegates. Last time, for example, both parties held primaries that were expensive and meaningless, violated national party rules and were boycotted by most of the Democratic candidates. The winners — Romney and Hillary Clinton — had their campaigns fizzle long before the national conventions began.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Michigan was the only primary state in the nation in which Barack Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot. (This year the Democrats are boycotting the primary; they will pick the state’s 203 delegates in special caucuses May 5. Presumably all will be for President Obama, who is unopposed.)
Republicans have a crowded race, however, which left the Michigan GOP with a major dilemma: National rules require all but a few states like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa to wait until March to hold caucuses or primaries.
The penalty for going earlier is the loss of half a state’s convention delegates. Michigan decided the attention was worth the loss of clout, and decided to hold a primary February 28. As a result, the number of votes the state will have was knocked down from 59 to 30, fewer delegates than the much smaller state of Mississippi will have.
Ironically, however, it isn’t clear this will bring Michigan much benefit. If Romney follows his narrow Iowa triumph with wins in the other pre-Michigan states, the race could be virtually over.
Even if he stumbles in some and wins decisively in Michigan, the state where his father George was a popular governor in the 1960s, the result may be dismissed as loyalty to a favorite son.
Besides, some Republicans outside the state are sure to sniff at the results because, well, it isn’t really a “closed” primary. Michigan has no party registration. Anybody can vote in the GOP primary just by saying he or she is a Republican.
As one disgruntled Washtenaw County Republican told a reporter, “Any registered voter — Republican, Democrat, Communist — is eligible.” Whether Democrats will show up and muddy the waters isn’t clear. In 2000, thousands did cross over and helped Arizona Sen. John McCain decisively defeat that year’s nominee, George W. Bush, in the Michigan primary.
This year, Democrats have been making political hay over the fact that all taxpayers are being forced to shell out for a one-party election. How much will it cost? Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan secretary of state, whose department handles elections, said, “$10 million is the figure we are using.”
Democrats, however, have had their own embarrassing primaries and caucuses in the past. Indeed, the Michigan delegate-selection process has seemed star-crossed since the state first established a presidential primary during the Progressive Era nearly a century ago. Henry Ford won the GOP primary in 1916.
Eight years later, Ford won the Democratic primary, even though he was not really a candidate either time. The primary lapsed during the Great Depression. When it was restarted in 1972, Democrats were hugely embarrassed when George Wallace won by a huge landslide the day after he was shot and almost killed.
In 1980, Democrats went to a caucus system so difficult almost no one could figure it out, and which eventually picked another loser.
Both parties have gone back and forth between different primary and caucus systems since. Ironically, the only time Michigan’s presidential primary has been meaningful was in those years when it was held late, in May. Gerald Ford’s big win in 1976 helped him narrowly fend off a challenge from Ronald Reagan. That same year, Jimmy Carter won a significant and extremely close Democratic primary over Mo Udall.
Four years later, George H.W. Bush overwhelmingly defeated the eventual GOP nominee, Ronald Reagan, in Michigan’s primary. That key showing in an industrial state helped the elder Bush end up as the vice-presidential nominee that year, something that turned out to be a stepping-stone to two Bush presidencies.
Most observers gave former Gov. William Milliken a lot of credit for the Bush victory that year. Milliken, a liberal Republican, campaigned intensively for his former Yale classmate, but later broke with him when he felt Bush had moved too far to the right.
The governor had even less use for the second President Bush, and he openly supported the Democratic nominee in 2004.
Last year, when an interviewer mentioned that the 1980 Michigan primary had started the Bush family on the way to the White House, Milliken looked downcast.
“I know. It’s my fault,” he said, only partly kidding.
Thirty years from now will anyone remember anything about Michigan’s role in the current campaign?
Stranger things have happened…but probably not.
Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a  consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.

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sandra kahn
sandra kahn

Good article. Both political party chairs are more interested in getting their 5 minutes of fame than they are in keeping Michigan’s rightful delegate count maximized and relevant. Why party activists let them get away with this is beyond me.


Note: Information in the fourth paragraph was corrected at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, January 6.

Bob Balwinski
Bob Balwinski

Why, as I have said over and over again, do I as a non-member of any political party have the right to vote in the primary of a political party??? My Republican neighbor was one of those who voted for George Wallace in 1972. When I asked why a staunch Republican would vote in the Democratic primary, he replied,”Just wanted to muddy the waters.” I did the same when I voted for John McCain in 2000 because Gov Engler said MI was a Bush state. Shouldn’t dues-paying party “members” get together and decide who they want as candidates? In the… Read more »

Dan Wholihan
Dan Wholihan

Bob here just explains the whole problems with open or ‘not closed’ primaries. I also don’t blame him one bit for voting in that primary. I would have done the same. Open primaries only work when there is a legitimate contest on both sides. Democrats usually have a caucus to avoid another “George Wallace” situation. One other reason for the February primary instead of the March one is because of Michigan law. There can only be elections on four given days a year. Any changes to that would have to go through the legislature. Personally, I wanted to see a… Read more »


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