Teachable Instant: The Invisible Primary

August 30, 2015

This brief activity gets your class talking about the "money primary" and the 2016 presidential election.  


What is the "invisible primary"?

Reporters and political scientists often refer to the "invisible primary" when examining the presidential election campaign.


What is this "invisible" primary?

a) Secret votes of Democrats and Republicans in major urban areas to decide on their candidate

b) The process before the actual party primaries when candidates accumulate money, key staffing and endorsements

c) Using special equipment, tiny voters (too small to be seen with the naked eye) in every state and U.S. territories are polled about their preferences for president


b) During the invisible primary, which takes place before the primary elections, presidential hopefuls seek money from wealthy donors, as well as endorsements and other support from party officials, elected officials, interest group members and the media in an effort to establish themselves as "serious" candidates.


The Background

For much of the country's history, ordinary citizens had no direct role in choosing their party's nominee. State and national party leaders chose the candidate behind closed doors.  In the 1900s, some states began to hold primaries in which voters expressed their preferences for their party’s nominee. But as late as 1968, only 12 states held such primaries. After 1968, a series of reforms in both major parties led to primary elections in virtually every state.


What percent of voters vote in presidential primaries?

a) 50%

b) 93% (adjusted for inflation)

c) less than 20%

d) 65-70%


c) Since 1996 only one primary season turnout topped 20% (31% in 2008, when Democrats selected Barack Obama as their nominee).  More voters participate in the general election, in which primary winners from the different parties compete for votes. Overall, 50-55% of eligible voters participate in presidential elections.


Debating the Invisible Primary

The "invisible primary" is also called the "money primary." During the period before the actual primaries, the candidates are trying to raise as much money as possible. Not only is money a necessary ingredient to win elections, but the amount of money raised is presented in the media as a gauge of how "serious" or "viable" a candidate is--and how much attention she or he deserves in the media.

In addition to raising money during this period, the candidates are also making their case before the leaders of their party. The number of endorsements from elected officials also indicates the "seriousness" of a candidate.

The vetting of potential nominees by wealthy patrons and the party establishment tends to ensure that the eventual candidate does not stray far from the party opinion leaders or from wealthy donors.  Many people on both the left and right believe that this has a corrupting effect on our political system.  

What the Money Primary really means is this: a tiny, tiny number of rich people will choose who gets to be the most powerful man or woman on the planet.    - Steve Hilton, Business Insider

However, some argue that the invisible primary is a useful way to winnow out candidates who are unfit for office or who do not stand much chance of winning in the general election.  In fact, many political observers see the results of the invisible primary as a stronger indicator of a candidate’s chances of winning the nomination than a candidate’s popularity with actual voters.

This helps explain why true outsiders or radicals rarely get to represent the two major parties in presidential elections. It also suggests the difficulty that candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders face (despite their popularity and poll numbers) in actually gaining the 2016 presidential nomination.

There are many ways people are organizing to challenge the "invisible primary" and the power of money in politics. These include legislation for campaign finance reform, efforts to build and support alternative media, and campaigns by candidates that eschew the "money primaries," Another strategy has been to bypass the two-party system entirely through building a third party that is not beholden to monied interests or to Democratic or Republican party leaders.

For discussion

  1. If party leaders and billionaires play an equal or greater role in determining the choices for the presidency than the voters, is this a subversion of democracy?
  2. If the Democratic and Republican parties can effectively block the candidacies of those with "outside the box" ideas, what are the chances of basic change in the United States?
  3. What strategies do you think could help break the hold of big money on our political system?


Optional Activity

Divide the class into groups of five and assign each group an "outsider" candidate (Sanders or Trump) to support. Give students 15 minutes to:

a) analyze the chances that their candidate has to gain the support of their respective party's establishment.
b) brainstorm a path to the party nomination given the obstacles ahead of them.

Reconvene the class, and ask each group to share their analysis with the rest of the class.