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How to Choose A President

September 16, 2009
by David Karol and Jack Citrin
photograph of people hanging political signs

Forty years after the 1968 reforms, the nominating contests in both parties are more exciting and competitive.

In keeping with the zeitgeist of “power to the people,” 1968 killed the already decaying system for nominating presidential candidates. In that year both major political parties changed their rules to replace selection of their nominee by the party’s elders in Congress and the states with selection by caucuses and primaries, giving rank-and-file voters the main say. Early predictions were that more candidates would run, they would start running earlier, fringe candidates would have a better chance, the media would become the new kingmakers, success in Iowa and New Hampshire would provide almost unbeatable momentum, and money would talk louder than ever.

How well have these surmises stood the test of time? Some things are certain. Candidates now must run aggressively in the primaries and caucuses. It is no longer a viable strategy to bypass the voters, court party leaders, and coyly wait for a draft at the convention. Candidates must enter the contest earlier and earlier and test the waters by trying out their product—themselves—on would-be investors and potential consumers. It’s vital to land early money from the political equivalents of venture capitalists and to succeed in branding oneself as having a chance to win. Ordinary voters determine a candidate’s market share, and their verdicts, based on a shifting set of cues, make and break careers.

The Lessons of History

In our view, history has shown many of the concerns about the post-1968 reforms to be overblown. Yes, the system is incredibly complex. The rules vary not only by year and by state, but even within jurisdiction—in 2008, independent voters in California were allowed to vote in the Democratic presidential primary but not the Republican one. This highly complex and decentralized system is in part a consequence of federalism; 50 state governments affect the process. In addition, the ability of national party organizations to impose their will is limited. A state trying to get ahead of Iowa or New Hampshire can be slapped down, but within this limit, no one can prevent the states’ playing musical chairs with the schedule of primaries.

Forty years of experience shows there is no single key to victory. Candidates with an early lead in the polls have faltered: Ed Muskie in 1972 and Joe Lieberman in 2004. Champion fundraisers—John Connally in 1980 and Howard Dean in 2004—have failed to win votes. Iowa victors have stalled out in later states, as happened to George H.W. Bush in 1980, and Dick Gephardt and Bob Dole in 1988. The same is true of winners in New Hampshire: John McCain in 2000, Paul Tsongas in 1992, and Gary Hart in 1984.

In fact, after the unlikely nominations of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter in the early days of the new system, candidates preferred by elected officials, fundraisers, party-aligned interest groups, and activists have generally prevailed in both parties. These nominees, chosen more for their reliability and ability to unite the party than for their competence or ability to inspire, are surprisingly similar to those favored when the choice was made by the bosses at the old-style conventions.

Current events

What is interesting in 2008 is the seeming inability of the party establishments, especially on the Republican side, to coordinate and then signal their preferred choice to the rank and file. The result: competitive and exciting contests in both parties. One reason for this is the absence of an incumbent president or vice president in the race—a first since 1928. Incumbents are almost automatically front-runners in terms of name recognition and organizational support. The closest thing to a party favorite in either race this year was New York Senator Hillary Clinton. She did win more early backing from leading Democrats than any of her rivals, but support among prominent members of her party was far from universal.

Both parties have long been diverse coalitions, making a difficult task of rallying behind a single candidate who is acceptable to all factions but captive to none. The post-1968 reforms in scheduling, changes in campaign finance laws, and developments in media technology have made top-down control even harder. Underdogs have more resources with which to build a campaign, thanks to candidates’ ability to raise money online, to mobilize through political blogs, and to the role of 527 Committees in empowering wealthy activists and interest groups. Witness Barack Obama’s and Ron Paul’s impressive fundraising this year, and Howard Dean’s in 2004.

Critics of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries’ prominent role often observe that these states are hardly a cross-section of the nation. Although the victory of Senator Obama in overwhelmingly white Iowa could mitigate this concern, the results from the GOP caucus on the same day in January may reinforce it. Iowa is located outside the Bible Belt, but exit polls revealed that 60 percent of Republican caucus attendees were evangelical Christians. The overrepresentation of this group worked in favor of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Yet this result stemmed less from that first contest’s location than from the rules by which it was conducted. Even more than the primaries, the caucus system favors candidates with intense and easy-to-mobilize followers.

Candidates on the fringe who score an early win due to local circumstances are still unlikely to be nominated in the end; the early victories bring heightened scrutiny that proves the winners’ undoing. Victory in New Hampshire did not make Pat Buchanan the Republican presidential nominee in 1996. Usually, the candidates aided most by “momentum” gained from early success have been those who stood well within their parties’ mainstreams but were not initially well known to voters, such as Jimmy Carter or John Kerry and, possibly, Barack Obama.

Going forward

Those frustrated by the present system often suggest replacing it with a national primary. Most parties around the world that have adopted primaries (an American invention) allow all their members to vote on the same day. Such a reform in the United States would mean that Californians would have the same choice of candidates that Iowans do. By contrast, in the current system many candidates have been eliminated before the California primaries, if indeed the nominations have not already been decided.

Although polls have long shown that most Americans favor this reform, adopting a national primary would greatly reduce the candidates’ incentive to engage in meeting and talking with ordinary voters and would lead them to concentrate even more heavily on the fundraising required to make national ad buys. This reform would also make it even harder for underdog candidates to get noticed by most voters; rich, better-known front-runners would have an even easier time.

What must be recognized is that for all its flaws, the American system of producing the Chief Executive combines the country’s democratic and decentralizing impulses, involving multiple actors in many venues. The present system tests the stamina of candidates, as well as their ability to both win public support and withstand the slings and arrows hurled by their opponents and the media, and the blogs. Indeed, the marathon run to become president in some ways is good training for the ultramarathon of office.

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