FULL-FLEDGED, delegate-binding primaries in 37 different jurisdictions, all crammed into 14 weeks -- that was the uniquely brutal endurance test facing those who sought to be the 1980 presidential nominees.
Back in the not-so-old days of 1968, there were only 17 presidential primaries. Most drew few candidates and less attention. The Democrats had contests in just seven of them. The 1968 Republican primaries were no contest; former president Richard Nixon was left without an active primary opponent when former governor George Romney withdrew before the New Hampshire primary.
One specific event contributed to the phenomenal growth in the number of presidential primaries and to the enlargement of the percentage of convention delegates chosen by primaries from 40 percent to almost 80 percent in just 12 years. That was the decision of the first of the Democratic Party's many commissions on the selection of convention delegates to order the state Democratic parties to take "affirmative steps to encourage . . . representation of minority groups at the national convention in reasonable relation to the group's population in the state." The same rule was imposed on state parties in regard to people under the age of 30 and to women.
This one rule changed the way the United States chooses presidents. State Democratic leaders, faced with the new reality of official delegate quotas and the real likelihood of endless convention challenges to their state delegations, simply decided to have their respective convention delegations selected in primaries instead. Historically, national conventions have been admirably reluctant to unseat state delegations chosen in open elections. Primaries looked like a very good way to avoid credentials challenges at national conventions.
The Republicans were even then aware of the Democratics' inclination to bloody primaries and were proud of their own discipline at avoiding same. They went along because they perceived a partisan advantage.
Too often, presidential primaries advertised. The biggest contribution the Democrats could make to reverse the rush to primaries and to produce a more conventional and mixed system of caucuses and state conventions for the selection of national convention delegates would be to repeal their quotas. With that repeal would go the fear of most challenges to convention delegations and the rationale for many of the primaries. Such quotas are quite definitely an idea whose time has passed.