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A Few Questions about Selecting
Presidential Candidates
by Lionel E. Deimel

 

On April 2, my son turns eighteen. Two days later, he gets to cast his first vote. Although there will be races of real significance on his Pennsylvania ballot, his vote in the Pennsylvania presidential primary will be less than memorable. The Ballot boxpresidential candidates of the two major parties were, everyone agreed, determined by the primaries of last week. Yesterday’s primaries made the results certain, barring—as we sometimes said during the Cold War—nuclear war. Geoffrey’s vote three weeks hence will have no effect on the selection of a candidate for President. This is not a good thing.

To begin with the most obvious question, why should a voter in New Hampshire or South Carolina have more influence over the choice of his party’s presidential candidate than does a voter in Pennsylvania? This question has no good answer. Even bad answers are hard to come by.

The next question is why we bother to have those summer political conventions if, in fact, everything is already decided by then? Why indeed! The television networks have asked this question and have concluded that there is little point in covering a coronation prelude-to-postlude. Without suspense, there seems little patriotic and even less commercial reason to preëmpt “NYPD Blue.” The argument that the details of the platform are still at issue at the convention is not compelling. TheCandidate candidate either gets what he wants or ignores what he gets. Either way, one learns more by paying attention to the candidate than to the convention. The same can be said about the running mate. Political junkies, of course, listen to the speeches to identify up-and-coming political talent, but this is too arcane an activity for the man on the street.

For years, we have been tweaking the candidate-selection process. The broad outlines of the current system flow from two objectives—the desire to make selection more “democratic” and the need to test the candidates. Presidential primaries have become more prominent in recent years to give to the electorate much of the power once held by political bosses. One can quibble with this idea, but it does seem a genuinely American impulse. The primaries could be made even more democratic by holding all of them on the same day. Thus, voters everywhere would have real influence over who gets the nomination. But this would run afoul of the second requirement, frankly that the run for the nomination be a kind of trial by ordeal. Not infrequently do candidates that look credible at the start of the primary season either succumb to unattractive weakness under the pressure of campaigning or, upon investigation, are found to have skeletons in their closets. Campaigning  over an extended period is an ugly business, but it does tend to weed out a certain type of person who may not have the temperament to hold the nation’s highest office.

A better system, I suggest, would allow voters in every state to express their preferences for a presidential candidate. Even victory in every state should not guarantee victory at the convention, although it should make it more likely. If this is the case, states do not have to jockey for an early primary date to assure that their voters are enfranchised. In fact, late dates might be more attractive. The extended primary season should be retained, though it could start later. At Vote buttonthe convention—which could more easily justify extended media coverage—perhaps office holders, party officers, and even designated uncommitted delegates should hold enough influence to confirm or deny nomination to the “winner” of the primaries. I don’t have any particular mechanism in mind to distribute this power, though the convention could be bicameral, with delegates elected in the primaries being a kind House of Representatives and the party elders acting like the Senate. The details could be varied over a few political seasons to find a good system.

The advantages of such a system are obvious. It would be fairer to voters and probably easier on candidates. Most importantly, it would restore some meaning to the conventions and provide a decent interval before the primaries during which we could question whether the parties were indeed about to make the right choices. It would provide a graceful way out whenever it becomes clear late in the process that the most likely candidate has a serious weakness. Unfortunately, the system would probably be harder on candidates who regularly do poorly in primaries. Dropping out or “suspending” one's campaigning is always an option.

Why not try something a little different next time?

— LED, 3/15/2000

 

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