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A Rotten Way to Pick a President

By Sean Wilentz and Julian E. Zelizer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

Something is seriously wrong with the way we pick our presidential candidates. But experts and pundits, caught up in the horse races, have been slow to point out the obvious -- or have come to accept our badly flawed system as immutable fact.

We were brought to our current mess by the best of intentions. Primaries and caucuses had been around for much of the 20th century, but until 1972, party bosses, not voters, ultimately had the most say in picking the nominees. In 1952, for instance, the Democratic barons selected Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson at the convention instead of the popular Sen. Estes Kefauver, who had won most of that year's primaries -- even beating President Harry S. Truman in New Hampshire. Kefauver, who had made his name by holding dramatic televised hearings into organized crime, was too outspoken to get the nod from a smoke-filled room.

The disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention shattered confidence in this efficient but undemocratic system. Instead of a dove such as Sen. Eugene McCarthy, party leaders from large, non-primary states tapped Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who had cravenly supported President Lyndon B. Johnson on the war in Vietnam and had sent surrogates to run in his place in the primaries. Outside the convention, young demonstrators howled in protest and were beaten by the police. Next time around, reformers led by Sen. George McGovern deliberately weakened the role of the conventions, making primaries the determining force in picking presidential candidates. The Republican Party, feeling some of the same frustration, soon followed suit.

The first people to test this new system were Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. The GOP's reforms gave a stronger voice to the Republican right, letting the upstart Reagan nearly upset President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 by winning the North Carolina and Texas primaries. On the Democratic side, Carter used his surprise victory in that year's Iowa caucuses to transform himself from an unknown peanut farmer and obscure governor ("Jimmy who?") into the front-runner -- without ever courting the party leaders. After Carter's defeat four years later, the Democrats worried that they had produced a process too favorable to weak "outsider" candidates. They then tried to restore some power to the party's operatives by establishing unpledged "superdelegates," including governors, members of Congress and former presidents -- a modest check that did little to gut the reforms.

The old ways were unfair and autocratic, of course. But the new ones have grave problems, too.

For one thing, caucuses can be highly undemocratic. They eliminate the secret ballot, forcing voters to declare their loyalties publicly, and are thus vulnerable to intimidation and manipulation. They also shut out many citizens who have to work during caucus times. If you can't show up at a specific hour, you can't vote -- a particular problem for people with fixed shifts, including many of the working poor. (The supposedly democratic caucuses can also discriminate, as happened to Sabbath-observant Jews who couldn't get to Nevada's Saturday caucuses.) And there are usually no absentee ballots, of course.

The magnified importance of the early showdowns also opens the door to abuse. This year, Democrats in Michigan and Florida moved up their contests, thereby drawing the ire of the national party, which vowed not to seat the delegates. Unless something changes, voters in these states will be unfairly removed from the decision-making process, and neither candidate will benefit from their support.

"Open" primaries and caucuses (in which anyone can vote, not just registered party members) let voters from the other party cause all sorts of mischief. A Republican convinced that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is too divisive to win in the fall could vote for her in some Democratic contests in the spring, hoping to saddle the Democrats with a losing nominee. Or, as Sen. Barack Obama's campaign did in Nevada, a candidate can openly appeal for votes from people outside his or her party in order to stop a rival. The winners are outsiders hoping to game the system; the losers are rank-and-file party members whose choices count less.

Another basic irony: Primaries tend to favor highly committed voters from the extremes of both parties, who are much more likely to turn up than moderates. So candidates have strong incentives to pander to their extremist flanks, throwing red meat that they may well regret in November or in the White House. For example, Reagan tacked far to the right during the 1980 primaries on abortion and other issues dear to religious conservatives, only to leave policies in these areas generally untouched after he won. Bill Clinton roused the Democratic base with populist themes during the 1992 primaries -- only to govern as a moderate centrist as the realities of the federal deficit left from the Reagan and Bush years sank in. Over time, the necessity of flattering the base during the primary season -- and of ignoring all that thunder in the fall -- only intensifies the sense of outrage, alienation and cynicism that has dogged American politics for decades.

Finally, while the primary system took power away from the party barons, it gave much of that clout to the news media -- now driven by national outlets that prefer sensationalism, scandal and sound bites to substance, nuance and balance. While retail politics survives in states such as New Hampshire, the real kingmakers today are the national media, which determine how most voters see the candidates. The seriousness of the candidates' debates, in both the primaries and the general election, has nose-dived since the famous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates -- let alone the Lincoln-Douglas debates of exactly 150 years ago, when no journalists were onstage.

Why the decline? Blame the bloated role of celebrity reporters and overpaid, often highly biased pundits, which the primary reforms unwittingly helped feed. The power shift away from the parties and toward the media has encouraged candidates to engage in "gotcha" politics, often about relatively trivial matters. In a recent debate, for instance, Clinton and Obama traded fierce barbs about who had fewer principles -- all based on who said what and when about allowing illegal immigrants to have drivers' licenses. Standing in the Reagan Presidential Library at the Jan. 30 CNN debate, Mitt Romney and John McCain spent much of their time battling over how to parse a past Romney statement about Iraq. These kinds of fights may be fun for political junkies to watch, but they have little to do with real policy or government performance. They also fuel the need for vast pools of funds to pay for TV spots, including negative advertising.

In general, Democrats have had much more trouble than Republicans kicking good results out of the new primary system. The old bosses turned out to be strikingly skilled at nominating strong candidates, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, John F. Kennedy and LBJ. Democrats haven't chosen nearly as well for themselves; more recent primary cycles have produced Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John F. Kerry and the one-term Carter. Bill Clinton stands as the exception rather than the norm. (Then again, this year, those much-maligned superdelegates may finally play a decisive role in selecting the candidate, finally redressing some of the excesses of the 1970s reforms.)

Until recently, Republicans did much better at opening up their nominating process without producing surefire losers. Why? Perhaps because the GOP establishment survived the 1960s far more handily than did the Democratic establishment, despite the reforms. When Reagan came to power in 1980, he merged the Republican right with the old party establishment -- defeating the establishment candidate, George H.W. Bush, then putting him on the ticket. Despite some turbulence along the way (such as televangelist Pat Robertson's startling second-place finish in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, or Mike Huckabee's victory there this cycle), the GOP's establishment candidate has tended to prevail: The elder Bush had his turn in 1988, followed by Robert Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. Indeed, from 1952 to 2004, the lone exception to this rule took place in 1964, when Barry Goldwater seized the nomination despite the qualms of the party establishment. With that sole exception -- which produced a crushing defeat -- either a Nixon, a Dole or a Bush has always been on the national ticket, and the Republicans have won nine out of 14 presidential elections.

But the times may be changing for Republicans. This year's primaries have shown that the old Reagan coalition has disintegrated. The seemingly inevitable nominee, Sen. John McCain, was the closest thing to a favorite of the old GOP establishment, but he raises hackles on the right with his pro-immigration, anti-torture views. Party stalwarts such as Rush Limbaugh and evangelical leader James Dobson have bellowed that McCain's nomination would mean the death of the GOP. On Super Tuesday, McCain lost in Southern states where the Republican base is strongest and thrived in ones that Democrats are likely to carry in November.

The unintended consequences of the well-intended reforms of the 1970s are now glaringly clear. Perhaps now, both parties will agree to reform the nominating system once again: abolishing caucuses, regularizing a rigorous system of national debates, closing open primaries, grabbing power back from the media and so on. We could still get it right in 2012.

swilentz@princeton.edu, jzelizer@princeton.edu

Sean Wilentz and Julian E. Zelizer teach U.S. political history at Princeton University.

Wilentz is the author of the forthcoming "The Age

of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008," and Zelizer is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s."

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