There have been so many complaints this year that the presidential primary system has become too unwieldy and impractical that I suggest the politicians borrow from sports in determining the 1980 nominees.
First, the traditional powers in the primaries—New Hampshire, Wisconsin, California, etc.—should band together and form a primary conference known as, say, the Big 11. Then they should sell the TV rights for exclusive primary coverage. Obviously, perennially No. 1-rated CBS would make the highest bid for the package, although you can be sure that the Big 11 would hold out a couple of really attractive races as Monday Night Primaries for ABC.
Among other things, this system would provide steady jobs as color-persons for some lucky ex-political luminaries. I suggest Mel Laird and Lady Bird Johnson to team up in the Brent Musburger-Phyllis George roles on CBS, with Julian Bond playing the black ingenue, an obligatory network sportscasting role these days. For Monday Night Primaries, who better to trade polysyllabic japes with Howard Cosell than "Spunky" Spiro Agnew, with Sam Yorty waiting in the wings in case ratings dip.
At the candidates' primary-day headquarters there would be signs saying such things as: NORTH CAROLINA WELCOMES MEL AND LADY BIRD—WE TARHEEL VOTERS LOVE YA, CBS! The Goodyear blimp would be brought in to fly over key polling places, and during lulls in the returns, just as at football halftimes, the candidates would have marching bands to spell out their positions on issues. For example, George Wallace's Band would spell out STOP BUSING and play On the Street Where You Live. Jimmy Carter's Band would Spell out MIDDLE OF THE ROAD and play All the Things You Are (Are Mine). President Ford's Band would spell out MORE and play More. Scoop Jackson's Band would spell out DETENTE and play Let's Call the Whole Thing Off. All voting would be in prime time or Saturday afternoons. And there would be no more sticky stuff about campaign financing, because CBS and ABC would be paying for the campaigns. (Not to be outdone, NBC would buy Canada and get Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to call for an election to be aired head to head against a potentially low-rated U.S. primary.)
June 6, 1976
The beautiful thing about this new system would be that the candidates would not all be thrown together in one big jumble, the way they were this year. Instead, beginning in the fall of 1979, there would be Top Ten polls for the 1980 candidates. The AP would get votes from newspaper columnists, the UPI from selected politicians. Candidates under indictment, like teams under NCAA suspension, could not be voted for in the polls. This would be called "the regular season," and interest would build—or mount, as they say. Every Tuesday there would be exciting headlines such as: HUMPHREY HOLDS TOP SPOT: UPSET ENDORSEMENT EDGES BENTSEN INTO TOP TEN. Instead of bothering with complicated issues, campaign workers would simply shout, "We're No. 1! We're No. 1!" whenever TV cameras were around.
As the regular season neared a climax, the primary bids would go out. Everybody would be on pins and needles waiting to see whom New Hampshire, "the Granddaddy of the Primaries," would invite. Understand, there would be just two candidates to a race—none of this present Chinese fire-drill business. And just as in college football, there would be limitations on how many TV primaries a candidate could appear in. At the end of each race the network would give the winner a $1,000 slush fund, presented in the name of the outstanding performer on his campaign team.
Of course, while two candidates would get all the attention for a week, giving them a fighting chance to compete for exposure against Laverne and Shirley, CBS would spend time promoting the next week's matchup. "We'll be back after this message with our exciting fourth-precinct returns," Laird would say. "But right now, Lady Bird, let's remind the vote fans watching at home that we'll be back next week with another real barnburner in the tight Big 11 race."
"That's right, Mel. Next week our entire CBS primary crew will be in America's dairyland for the big Wisconsin Primary Bowl, where we'll be offering a real ding-dong battle between two high-scoring maverick candidates, Fred Harris and Eugene McCarthy."
"And you can throw out the polls when these two traditional rivals clash," Julian Bond would add.
"Right, Julie," Mel would say. "And don't forget, the winner goes on to the New Jersey Bowl—another CBS exclusive—on May 14, where his opponent will be the winner of the tough Scoop Jackson-Frank Church Maryland Primary Bowl."
One advantage of this arrangement would be that a candidate's Nielsen rating could be used to determine his public appeal. Let's suppose that Milton Shapp beats Sargent Shriver in the Oregon Primary Bowl. Shapp would be ecstatic, but suppose that Nielsen showed that the Shapp-Shriver race was whipped in the TV ratings by ABC's Demolition Dog-Sled Derby and could not even match CBS' lead-in program, the Challenge of the Sexes, with plucky Indira Gandhi beating Uganda's President Idi Amin at swimming the English Channel.
Obviously, the heat would be on Shapp. When he goes into the Texas Primary Bowl against Birch Bayh, he would not only have to win votes, but he also would have to show that he could get the right TV ratings. If he didn't, the network could cancel him. Thus, if Shapp beat Bayh but got slaughtered in the ratings by Almost Anything Goes and the Muhammad Ali-Teresa Brewer title fight from New Guinea, CBS would sign up Walter Mondale as a "wild card" to replace Shapp in the Indiana Primary Bowl against Morris Udall.
The national election would be held in October 1980 on a travel day during the World Series. The two nominees would be ensconced in the locker rooms at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium and, just as the pivotal California results came in, Laird would head down to the winner's locker room, where Chief Justice Burger would present the presidential trophy. Pandemonium would reign. Shirley Chisholm, Wilbur Mills and Hiram Fong would pour champagne over the lucky winner's head. He would tell Mel it was a team effort. Then word would arrive that a new car has been awarded to Mayor Daley as the most valuable performer in the election for his part in helping to carry Illinois.