This presidential election season has been quite unusual, to say the least. Commentators have struggled to explain the rise of Donald Trump and surprising successes of Bernie Sanders, but at the moment no one can say whether we are observing a ‘one off,’ the rise of authoritarianism or a realignment of the parties. Rather than adding my voice to this cacophony of interpretation, I would like to discuss one aspect of this presidential race that has emerged as both controversial and little understood: the processes by which parties select their candidates. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—and their supporters – have decried the nomination system as “corrupt,” “closed” and “unfairly controlled by the party establishment.” The system is extremely complicated, and can indeed seem absurd at times. My objective here is to consider the goals of a presidential selection process, and to think about these criticisms in light of these objectives.
So I start with the question, what do we want from a presidential selection process? Often we hear that the system should simply reflect the “will of the people” in elevating someone to the presidency. It is hard to argue with this sentiment, given that the U.S. is characterized as a democracy. But this phrase is more opaque than one might think at first blush. Is the will of the people best measured by the temporary popularity of a candidate? If so, then a national “open” primary (in which all citizens over 18 may vote) would be the ideal model for candidate selection. The top two (or three? Four?) candidates who are the most popular on a particular day would be the candidates for the election. But would this 24-hour snapshot truly capture the will of the people? Anyone who watches cable news and sees the proliferation of weekly—even daily—public opinion polls should know that public attitudes toward candidates is fluid, and even whimsical.
James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” had a very different concept of how one should conceive of the public will, or “voice.” In his famous paper Federalist 10, Madison argued that the public voice does not always choose wisely, and can be easily swayed by temporary passions and demagogic appeals from unscrupulous politicians. He believed that carefully chosen representatives would be better able to determine the public good. In Madison’s words, representatives could “refine and enlarge the public views” and “may best discern the true interest of their country.” In fact, with a proper system of representation, Madison believed “it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves. . . . “ (James Madison, Federalist No. 10, 1787.) In other words, Madison argued that wise elected officials often make policy that is more in keeping with the public good than would the people themselves. (For example, people perennially complain that taxes are too high, yet we are hard-pressed to determine which of our governmental services we would choose to do without.)
Of course, we must remember the framers were far more suspicious of dispersing political power to average people than we are in 2016. In the original Constitution, only the House of Representatives were directly elected, and states restricted voting to white, male property owners. Nonetheless, as we think about the best method for selecting presidential candidates, it does not hurt to keep in mind that our representative form of government was designed to check the immediate unthinking opinions of the public at large.
So to turn again to the presidential campaign: what are the goals for our method of selection? For surely we want our system to do more than simply enact the popular will: we want our process for selection to result in the choice of someone who will be a good President, do we not? Political scientist James W. Ceaser wrote a landmark work in which he laid out the goals of a selection process. In his view, the best process of presidential selection will:
1. Ensure a legitimate accession of power;
2. Provide for the proper amount of choice and change;
3. Help secure an able president;
4. Promote the proper kind of executive leadership;
5. Minimize the harmful effects of the pursuit of office by highly ambitious contenders. (James W. Ceaser, Presidential Selection: Theory and Development, Princeton University Press, 1979, p.10.)
In this election season, there has been a great deal of focus on the first two goals of the system, and much less on the last three. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have often spoken about the first factor, maintaining that their supporters have been unfairly deprived of equal voice in the process of selecting delegates to their parties’ conventions. Whether discussing registration requirements, the allocation of delegates or the existence of superdelegates, supporters of Sanders and Trump have frequently maintained that the nomination process illegitimately favors the preferences of party elites. Should this view become widespread and lasting, it might well undermine the legitimacy of the process.
The second goal has also been a constant refrain in recent presidential contests. Candidates frequently compete over whom can bring about sufficient “change.” (Interestingly, Hillary Clinton has never chosen this as her primary rhetorical gambit. This year she has yoked her campaign to President Obama’s policies, and in 2008, she was more concerned with convincing voters that a woman could be a competent president than with promising change.) Bernie Sanders promises a “political revolution” and Donald Trump emphasizes that he can “make America great” by reversing trends in international trade and immigration. Meanwhile, many Americans fret that neither Clinton nor Trump provides them with an acceptable choice, and speak of the possibility of an independent candidate.
What about the third goal: securing an able president? Certainly some commentators have discussed the lackof competency of various candidates this season. These concerns swirled mostly around Donald Trump and Ben Carson, based on both their lack of previous experience in office, and many of their own questionable statements. But being competent is seldom discussed as an advantage, or a positive characteristic. In fact, competence is often perceived as the unwanted badge of the Establishment insider, for competence in public office can seldom be gained without actually holding elected office. (It is truly amazing—and always surprising to those in European democracies—that Americans often see lack of experience as actual evidence of fitness for public office.) Few have doubted the competency of Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz or John Kasich, but no one seeks to run on an “At least I’m competent” platform, and it does not dominate campaign discourse. News commentators are more likely to see experience as ‘baggage’ that politicians must overcome, rather than celebrating the need for this characteristic in our presidential candidates.
Ceaser’s fourth goal, that our selection system should promote the proper type of leadership and power, is a bit more complicated. He maintains the nature of campaigns themselves influence the behavior of individuals once they are elected to the presidency. “The leadership appeals used to seek the office create habits and expectations that carry over into how both the public and the candidates understand the role of the presidency.” (p.15) If a candidate must make promises to various interest groups to be elected, then he will be at least somewhat obligated to keep these groups happy once in office. If a candidate is elected through public charisma, she will try to use that charisma in mass appeals when attempting to enact policies. If the candidate aligns his promises with the ideology held by his party colleagues in Congress, he will be able to reliably draw on their support when taking action on those promises. Some sophisticated news commentators understand aspects of this dynamic, and recognize that campaigns continue to resonate once a president takes office. But almost no one is discussing this dynamic when considering the best way to select a nominee. When a selection system encourages a particular behavior on the campaign trail, one must realize—for better or worse – it will also then shape the actions of the future chief executive.
The final goal of a selection system is the one most salient to the framers of the Constitution, and perhaps most salient to the present election cycle: we should select our leaders in a way that will “minimize the harmful effects of the pursuit of office by highly ambitious contenders.” The framers assumed that those who seek high office will be ambitious folks, not altruistic saints. Therefore, a system of selection must channel the ambition of politicians so that the mode of attaining office does not reward behavior that ultimately damages our political system. One of their chief worries about elections in a democracy was that unscrupulous candidates would appeal to the worst instincts of the masses. Gaining popular support by whipping up negative passions may be a successful means of getting elected, but what are the consequences of such campaigns? A candidate can turn one part of the populace against another, scapegoat minorities, encourage outrage at reasonable policies, and turn people against the government itself. In the view of the framers, selection systems that reward this type of demagoguery are more likely to result in rulers who have little integrity and few concerns about the effects of such rhetoric on the nation at large.
I now want to briefly consider one of the current criticisms of the nominating system in light of the goals listed above: the existence of “superdelegates” in the Democratic party’s nominating process. Critics—primarily supporters of Bernie Sanders—argue that elected Democratic office holders (“superdelegates”) should not be awarded independent voting power at the party convention. This concern is premised on the belief each citizen’s primary (or caucus) vote should be weighed equally, and no delegate should be able to disregard the voice of the public.
But consider the reason for this practice. The superdelegates were added to the Democratic Party convention after the move to more ‘open’ presidential primaries and caucuses in the early 1970s had produced relatively weak Democratic candidates (George McGovern and Jimmy Carter). The expectation was that those who are most experienced in government (Democrats currently holding office) could help choose the nominee. Presumably, they would be more likely to choose someone they deem an able person (Goal 3), who would exercise executive leadership properly (Goal Four), and refrain from demagoguery (Goal Five). And of course, they might help choose a more electable candidate.
Have the superdelegates been the saviors of the Democratic Party by consistently choosing a successful nominee who becomes an excellent president? Well, so far, they haven’t made any difference at a convention, in that they have always voted for the candidate who has won the most regular delegates. But in a close race, they might assure that the more able, less demagogic candidate is chosen. And when these public officials state their preferences during primary contests, it’s possible that they exert some influence over regular Democratic voters. Adding the superdelegate count to the accumulating regular delegate count can help the candidate who is already ahead seem more inevitable. Of course, this possibility is exactly what the critics find unacceptable about the concept of superdelegates. But if one looks at their existence in terms of the overall goals of a presidential contest, one might give pause. Do we necessarily want a selection system that puts no brakes at all on the rise of a populist candidate, unfit for office and able to command votes by whipping up unsavory passions?
I certainly don’t oppose reforms to the nomination systems of either party. The way we have chosen nominees has evolved significantly throughout U.S. history, and is likely to change once again. Indeed, if our current system begins to lose legitimacy among much of the populace (Goal 1), it must indeed be altered. But I hope that those who champion changes carefully consider the likely effects of the reforms, and measure these effects against the goals we seek in choosing our chief executive. In my view, responsible reforms must consider more than simply enacting the temporary ‘voice’ of the people.