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
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. The
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 the
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
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