Lost in the Smoke-Filled Room: Unexpected Talent

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, April 14, 2008

If this were Britain, Russia or India, Rudy Giuliani '08 caps would not be on the clearance racks. In those countries, where bigwigs and insiders get to nominate party leaders, the former Republican front-runner and establishment favorite would have long ago been anointed the winner.

Giuliani's inglorious fall, and the ascendance of Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), send an important message to the world about the importance of intra-party democracy: Interesting things happen when you allow rank-and-file voters to choose their leaders. Primaries don't just eliminate over-hyped Giulianis; they also discover underrated Obamas and never-say-die McCains.

"Barack Obama is Exhibit A about the value of holding primaries," said James Adams, a political scientist at the University of California at Davis, who studies how political parties around the world choose leaders. "A lot of Democratic Party elites did not know what a good campaigner he was or would prove to be. Candidates like Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani may be Exhibit B about the value of holding primaries, in that they proved less appealing than their press clippings would have suggested."

If the eyes of the world are glued on the U.S. presidential primaries, the most important lesson others take away might have to do with the importance of having such races in the first place. New research by Adams and others shows that primaries are the most efficient way to discover political phenoms such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- politicians who might never have been chosen if it had been left up to party insiders.

In contrast to the United States, party leaders in Britain are selected by the equivalent of superdelegates, such as members of Parliament. In Russia, India and many other countries, presidential and prime ministerial candidates are often handpicked by small groups of elites -- Russian President Vladimir Putin recently anointed Dmitry Medvedev leader of the United Russia Party ahead of general elections, which the party was certain to win. Medvedev was formerly Putin's chief of staff.

In India, four generations of the famous Nehru-Gandhi family have maintained a lock grip over leadership of the ruling Congress Party.

But in recent years (with the United States happily in the vanguard) a growing number of political parties around the world have turned away from selecting leaders in the equivalent of smoke-filled backrooms to holding open primaries. Along the way, they have discovered something astonishing: Parties that conduct primaries have a much better chance of fielding candidates who go on to win general elections than parties whose leaders are selected or nominated by party bigwigs.

The finding at first seems implausible. Primaries can leave candidates bruised: Witness the epic battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). It would seem that leaders selected by party insiders -- or sitting presidents who are renominated without a fight -- are better positioned to win general elections than candidates who first have to win difficult intra-party battles.

But Adams and mathematician Samuel Merrill III recently showed that the electoral benefits of discovering extraordinary politicians such as Bill Clinton, Reagan and Obama through competitive primaries outweigh the cost of a two-step election process. (The finding ought to please Democrats worried that the continuing Obama-Clinton race will harm their general-election chances.)

"It can be so valuable to find out who is a good campaigner and who is a bad campaigner," said Adams. "Holding a primary can help you, and it can especially help you if you are a weak party."

Gilles Serra, a political scientist at Oxford University, said primaries tend to produce superior candidates for a number of reasons. First, they expand the pool of possibilities -- outsiders such as Obama can enter the race and be taken seriously, and left-for-dead candidates such as McCain can resurrect themselves and fight on. Second, the millions of people who vote in primaries may be partisans, but they are a closer approximation to the views of the overall country than are small groups of party insiders. Finally, primaries produce leaders who are not beholden to the party establishment -- and these leaders tend to put the interests of citizens first.

"A classic example is John F. Kennedy, who was relatively unknown in 1960 but whose victory in West Virginia's primary revealed his ability to win Protestant votes and convinced his party to grant him the nomination," Serra said. "Other examples of candidates whose surprising appeal to voters was unveiled thanks to a primary election are Ségolène Royale in France, Carlos Menem in Argentina and Felipe Calderón in Mexico."

For the past four months, the world has been transfixed by the Republican and Democratic primaries because everyone wants to know who will win. But you don't have to wait until June or November to know these races have already produced some very important winners: From Minsk to Montreal, hundreds of Barack Obamas and John McCains are watching these races -- and dreaming about their turn.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company