Bring on the contested primaries

Too many candidates and their financial backers seem bent on “clearing the field” of competition for their party’s nomination. Without a primary opponent, the lone candidate’s finance committee gets a reprieve from early fundraising. Outside of that advantage, though, there are almost no benefits of running alone for your party’s nomination. The significant rewards derived from vigorous intra-party competition far outweigh the financiers’ burdens.

The principal benefit of a contested primary is that it forces the candidate and campaign to start working hard early. Without a clear deadline looming, some candidates have a hard time getting their motors running. November after next is so far away that procrastination seems rational. But once you recognize that the die will be cast next spring or summer, that’s all the motivation most campaigners need.

The early start is now more important than ever because of the economy and the new direct-contact nature of campaigns. Instead of relying solely on TV in the last two months of a primary, campaigners are going to have to start winning campaigns at the grass roots much earlier. Don’t get me wrong. Expensive broadcast time will still be bought by campaigns, but traditional TV buys will become less influential. For one thing, while TV is less effective than ever for reaching primary voters, the cost to buy time is not declining, even in this terrible recession when it’s harder than ever for campaigns to raise dollars. Over-the-air TV is pricing itself out of the primary business in many media markets. This is going to motivate primary competitors to seek other options, and most will involve direct contact, including old-fashioned vote-to-voter retail campaigning.

There is an old adage that “the candidate who touches the most voters wins.” In primaries this is almost surely true. There is no substitute for personal campaigning. If there were two candidates who seemed roughly alike, wouldn’t you be more likely to vote for the one who shook your hand? Of course you would. So the contested primary forces smart candidates to start as early as possible so as to create the maximum opportunity to touch the greatest number of voters possible.

A competitive primary also manufactures more touching venues. Contests engender candidate forums and debates. Competitive primaries force the media to write and talk more about the campaigns and the candidates, creating free name recognition earlier on, stimulating interest in going to campaign events, furthering the grassroots feel of a primary. I also see resurgence of traditional block-walking as well as newfangled campaigning using Internet technologies. Campaigners are rapidly finding alternatives to bloated TV buys, and early competitive primaries are their motivation.

Primaries are also good for campaign organizations. Just as a new ship requires a shakedown cruise, campaign structures need to be tested to see if all the parts work well together. Can the press secretary perform in a crisis? Can the mail guy deliver on time? Can the fundraiser collect the checks? Can the manager hold the whole thing together? The primary is the only opportunity to test the organization before the fall campaign, and it sometimes reveals problems that need fixing, problems that might have gone unnoticed had there not been a test.

But what about the “bloody primary,” you ask, the primary that inflicts wounds that still fester into the general election season? This is one of the most overrated arguments ever against primaries. In reality, it almost never occurs. The list of candidates who can convincingly argue that they lost because of a tough primary is far shorter than the tally of candidates who won because they were tested early. The many contested GOP primaries we already see upcoming will bolster our party’s fall prospects. And there’s still time to add new challengers if you’re game.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.