We do not have a good system for selecting presidential nominees

Really good column from David Leonhardt last week on the problems with the presidential nominating system, “The Presidential Nominating Process Is Absurd.”  We’ve had the present system in place since roughly 1972 and it has not always been “absurd,” but given how the system now operates in our current political environment, that’s probably a pretty fair characterization.  Leonhardt:

Andrew Yang began his closing statement at the last Democratic debate with a charming bit of self-deprecation: “I know what you’re thinking, America. How am I still on this stage with them?”

Yang has never been elected to any office. He is a businessman who has never run a major company. Even so, he is one of the Democratic Party’s seven leading candidates for an election that everybody agrees is desperately important. The other six on the debate stage included another businessman who’s never held office and a mayor who has never won an election with more than 10,991 votes.

As funny as Yang’s line may have been, he was highlighting a real problem: Our process for selecting presidential nominees is badly flawed.

It is, as Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja recently wrote in The Atlantic, “a spectacle that would have struck earlier generations as ludicrous.” It has come to resemble a reality television show, in which a pseudo-scientific process (polls plus donor numbers) winnows the field. The winner is then chosen by a distorted series of primaries and caucuses: The same few states always get outsize influence, and a crude, unranked voting system can produce a nominee whom most people don’t want.

No wonder the current president is a reality-television star, not to mention the most unfit occupant of the office in our country’s history. “The victory of Donald Trump in 2016 is best understood as a failure of the process,” the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has written, “and a failure of the Republican Party to prevent an outsider from taking its presidential nomination — the most important thing that U.S. political parties have.”

The current system may seem as if it’s simply an expression of democracy, but it’s not. It’s one version of democracy. And it’s one that virtually no other country uses. In other democracies, political parties have more sway in selecting the nominee, and voters then choose among the major nominees. Until recently, the United States also gave party leaders a larger role in selecting nominees.

Today’s leaders have abdicated this job, afraid to do anything that might appear elitist because it substitutes the judgment of experts for that of ordinary citizens. The irony is that the new process may actually do a poorer job of picking nominees whom ordinary citizens like, as research by Dennis Spies and André Kaiser, looking across countries, suggests.

Yep.  More small-d democratic is most definitely not always better and can, depending on circumstances– like the present ones– definitely be worse.

I had been meaning to read the Rauch and La Raja in my hardcopy Atlantic, but I couldn’t find it, so I finally got around to reading it on-line thanks to Leonhardt.  It’s really, really, really good. If you have any interest in understanding presidential nomination politics on a deeper level, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Definitely going into the Spring 2020 PS 401 U.S. Political Parties syllabus.  Here’s some highlights:

Americans who tuned in to the first Democratic presidential debates this summer beheld a spectacle that would have struck earlier generations as ludicrous. A self-help guru and a tech executive, both of them unqualified and implausible as national candidates, shared the platform with governors, senators, and a former vice president. Excluded from the proceedings, meanwhile, were the popular Democratic governor of a reliably Republican state and a congressman who is also a decorated former marine.

If the range of participants seemed odd, it was because the party had decided to let small donors and opinion polls determine who deserved the precious national exposure of the debate stage. Those were peculiar metrics by which to make such an important decision, especially given recent history. Had the Democrats seen something they liked in the 2016 Republican primary? The GOP’s nominating process was a 17-candidate circus in which the party stood by helplessly as it was hijacked by an unstable reality-TV star who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Republican. The Democrats in 2016 faced their own insurgency, by a candidate who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Democrat. And yet, after the election, the Democrats changed their rules to reduce the power of the party establishment by limiting the role of superdelegates, who had been free to support the candidate of their choosing at the party convention, and whose ranks had been filled by elected officials and party leaders. Then, as the 2020 race began, the party deferred to measures of popular sentiment to determine who should make the cut for the debates, all but ensuring runs by publicity-hungry outsiders…

What often went unnoticed, however, was why the nominees were so impressive: Professional gatekeeping had survived informally, in the parallel vetting process known as the invisible primary. Even after the rule changes of the 1970s, candidates still needed to prove their viability to the party’s elected officials and insiders, which meant showing that they could win influential endorsements, command media attention, appeal to multiple constituencies, attract top campaign talent, and raise money. To be competitive, they had to run a gantlet of party bigwigs, factional leaders, and money brokers. As recently as 2008, four leading political scientists argued that, as the title of their book put it, the party decides.

Then came 2016. Neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders changed the system all by himself. Rather, both saw and exploited the invisible primary’s fragility. The electorate had come to view the establishment’s seal of approval with skepticism or outright hostility, allowing outsider candidates to tout their lack of endorsements as a mark of authenticity. Candidates have learned to bypass traditional moneymen by reaping donations online, tapping deep-pocketed tycoons, or just financing themselves. And the media landscape has evolved to provide oxygen to rogue candidates.

Restoring the old era of smoke-filled rooms is neither possible nor desirable. Primaries bring important information to the nominating process. They test candidates’ ability to excite voters and campaign effectively; they provide points of entry for up-and-comers and neglected constituencies; they force candidates to refine their messages and prove their stamina. But as 2016 made clear, primaries are only half of a functional nominating system. The other half is input from political insiders and professionals who can vet candidates, steer them to appropriate races, and, as a last resort, block them if they are unacceptable to the party or unfit to govern. [emphasis mine]

Short version: We will get better nominees if we bring the institutional party further back into the process and both parties have abdicated this important role.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to We do not have a good system for selecting presidential nominees

  1. homeys44 says:

    Totally agree. Current system rewards factionalism and rhetoric over experience. Trump is a perfect candidate for this idiotic system, that no other country copies. And now, others will want to copy him. Can’t believe there isn’t serious talk of some kind of rank voting, at least, to discourage factionalism.

    If it wasn’t for black primary voters, we’d be awaiting a likely Trump vs Bernie election. And thats depressing.

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