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A Short History of the Nomination Process

Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Hope everybody had a nice holiday!

So I wanted to start my little series on the Presidential nomination crisis by describing the history of the process. We've gone through 4 basic systems for nominating Presidents.

1) The Congressional Caucus. The party's congressional delegation in Washington nominated its candidates for President. This system lasted from 1796 until 1824.

2) The Pure Convention System. After a number of experiments (like having state legislatures nominate candidates), the National Nominating Conventions were adopted by the major parties starting in 1832 with the Democrats. Martin Van Buren borrowed the idea from the Anti-Masonic Party. Convention delegates were chosen by the state parties, decentralizing political control away from Washington. Those state delegations were usually chosen by a party caucus or convention in each state. The old convention system tended to be dominated by "party bosses," but in many respects was a more open process than is given credit for. It lasted in its unadulterated form until around 1900. The Democrats added an extra wrinkle by requiring that 2/3 of the delegates were needed to select a nominee, which gave the South a veto. Today the convention system is used to select candidates in virtually every other western democracy.

3) The Mixed Convention/Primary System. Frustrated with the power of party machines, Progressive reformers created the presidential preference primary. Now it's important to note that the U.S. is the only country that uses primaries. My hypothesis for this is that because of the regional cleavages caused by the civil war, most people lived in what were effectively one-party regions. So they only way to create any political accountability was to create a formalized system of intra-party competition, giving voters the power to select nominees. At the Presidential level, a handful of about 15-20 states adopted presidential preference primaries. Most of these were "beauty contests" that brought no delegates. This system lasted from around 1900 until 1968. The 2/3 rule was disposed of in 1940 so that FDR could get nominated for a 3rd term. Under these reforms the voters had a say, but at the end of the day the party leadership (or bosses, if you prefer) still picked the nominees.

4) The Primary System. In 1968 a lot of Democrats were ticked off that Hubert Humphrey, who supported LBJ's policy in Vietnam, was selected as the nominee even though he'd never entered a single primary. So the party decided to revamp the nomination system yet again by requiring (among other things) the winners of primaries would have to get the delegates in that state. The result was a proliferation of primaries, and a strengthening of the role of the media in selecting nominees (although Kennedy was the first real "media candidate.") It was at this time that the party leadership lost effective control of the process and the modern system was created.

The system has remained in flux on the Democratic side, however. At first the primaries were winner-take-all, but then were modified so that they were allocated proportionately by congressional district (so if a candidate won 40% of the vote in the state but only 25% in a given district, he'd get 25% of the delegates in that district). The Democrats also added in what are called Super-Delegates (mainly elected officials) to restore some power to the party leadership, but that reform has never made any discernible difference.

The key element to understanding the primary system is that it is sequential: the elections happen across time as well as space. Candidates that lose early contests lose credibility in the eyes of the press, contributors, and voters, so the early contests are the most important. Ever since the nomination process was first used in 1972, the early primaries have been the most important. In 1972 McGovern won the Iowa Caucuses and came in a close second in New Hampshire; Carter won both New Hampshire and Iowa in 1976 and 1980; Mondale won Iowa and lost NH, setting up the Hart-Mondale duel in 1984; Dukakis won NH in 1988; Gore & Kerry both won IA and NH in 2000 & 2004. The sole exception is Bill Clinton, who did not compete in Iowa and came in 2nd in NH, but he won the crucial Georgia primary a little bit later.

Because the early states winnow the field down down to 2 candidates, every state has an incentive to be one of those early states. Iowa and New Hampshire have enjoyed a privileged position in this regard, which they have guarded ferociously. Over time more and more states have moved earlier and earlier. NH used to vote in March - not it votes in January. Most of the big states used to vote in April through June, and now they vote in February and March. This process of front-loading has been underway for some time now, and neither party has been very effective in trying to stop it. So far we've avoided moving into the year previous to the election, but if things keep going on this way it's bound to happen. If not this cycle, it'll happen next time.

Next time: What's wrong with the system we have now?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:38 PM
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