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Morning Jay: This Is No Way to Pick a President

6:00 AM, Oct 12, 2011 • By JAY COST
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The United States is just over a year from choosing the next leader of the free world. So why was one side of the battle totally hung up on whether Rick Perry would make any gaffes in last night’s debate? Isn’t that more than a little ridiculous? Is this what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they established the procedures for selecting the president?

GOP debate

The contemporary nomination process is not the product of careful consideration and precise execution. Instead, its origins trace back to the far left of the Democratic party, which rewrote their side’s nomination rules after 1968. The Republicans, without much consideration of their own, followed along over the course of the 1970s, and today’s process has evolved slowly ever since.

It is a mess. If I had my way, I’d do away with it entirely – sweeping it out root-and-branch – and return to something closer to the old system, wherein state and local party leaders met at the quadrennial convention to hammer out an agreement. The liberals of the 1960s thought that this “open” process would be better, but as with so much else, they were dead wrong. There are four substantial problems with the current nomination system, and all of them harm both parties.

 1. It is not deliberative. I’ve quoted the late E. E. Schattshneider on this page many times. His two great works – Party Government and The Semi-Sovereign People – are required reading for anybody trying to understand how power in American government is distributed. As Schattscheider argued, American democracy is unthinkable without the two parties, which regulate and clarify the choices that the electorate makes at the ballot box. Without the parties, we’d have electoral competitions much like those in the big cities or in the South, where political lines are drawn according to unsophisticated racial/ethnic/demographic cleavages, backroom dealings, patronage, or petty grudges between politicians.

This points to the major flaw in primary elections. Because they are intra-party contests, it becomes very difficult for the electorate to make an informed choice. So, quite often we see the importance of momentum, where a victory one week helps a candidate the next week; this kind of “bandwagon effect” is not a sign of careful deliberation – quite the opposite. We also see patterns similar to what the Democrats produced in 2008 (and 1980 and 1984, for that matter), where votes break down according to demographic affinities. Again, this is not the sign of a deliberative process.

2. They do not demand consensus. Say what you want about the old convention-style nomination battles, at the very least they required the participants to reach a consensus. It didn’t matter how long it took, a candidate had to get to half-plus-one of the delegates (and prior to 1936, Democrats had to get to 2/3rds). That meant the eventual nominee was a candidate whom everybody (or almost everybody) could live with, as well as parting gifts for the losers – be it in the form of a favorable plank in the platform or the vice-presidential selection.

This is not the case for the modern system. Democrats regularly win the nomination with less than half of the primary electorate (Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all had less than 50 percent). And, in 2008, John McCain became the first GOP nominee in the modern era to win with less than half the vote; 53 percent of all Republicans preferred somebody other than McCain, yet he won anyway.

This makes no sense. Our “first past the post” system for general elections is intelligible, as somebody has to be seated in the office. But the nominee of the party does not win an office; he simply gets to represent the party in the fall campaign. So, shouldn’t he be representative of the party’s preferences?  

3. The establishment still rules. Historically speaking, the Republican party has long been divided between the well-heeled establishment in the Northeast and the small town conservatives of the Midwest (who have in recent years alligned with the conservative Sun Belt). From the Civil War to the Great Depression, the Midwest held the balance of power, as more than two-thirds of the Republican nominees came from Illinois, Indiana, or Ohio. After the Depression, when Democrats surged in the Northeast, the establishment began to dominate the GOP, as the party nominated moderates Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Alf Landon, Richard Nixon, and Wendell Wilkie, all of whom had the blessing of the Mid-Atlantic and New England. The conservatives, most notably Robert Taft, were left on the outside looking in.

One would think that opening up the nomination process to the broader GOP electorate would diminish the power of the establishment, but that would be incorrect. Money is the name of the game in the primary battle, and the establishment has plenty of it to spread around.

For instance, the top three GOP fundraisers in 2008 were Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Their hauls were overwhelmingly tilted to the establishment – Giuliani collected 55 percent of his money from those who gave more than $2,300, while Romney pulled in 48 percent and McCain collected 34 percent. What’s more, the securities/investment industry contributed nearly 10 percent of Giuliani and Romney’s total hauls, with the big banks (like Lehman and Citi) making up nearly 20 percent of those contributions.

In other words, the rise of the primary system has not degraded the power of the well-heeled Republican establishment. They may not have the votes, but they have the cash that candidates need for the votes.

4. They are too expensive. Through March of 2008, Republican presidential candidates had raised better than $300 million. This was money dedicated not to campaigning against the Democrats, but against each other. Here’s a question for the party that campaigns on economy in government: isn’t there a more efficient way to select a nominee?

Just about nobody likes the current nomination process. Unfortunately, every major reform proposal I’ve seen (e.g. a national primary, a cycling set of regional primaries) would exacerbate these four problems, as they would all enhance the role of the primary, which in my opinion is the major flaw with the status quo.

My preference is to bring back something similar to the old convention-style system. This would do away with the ill conceived primary elections, revitalize the state and local parties, and hopefully facilitate a more deliberative process that encourages consensus, reduces the power of the establishment, and costs less. 

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