By Christopher Malone, associate professor and chair, Department of Political Science, Pace University, New York City
The race for the presidency has gone through extraordinary transformations in our 225-year history. Not completely trusting the people with the task of choosing the executive, the Framers constructed a barrier in the form of the Electoral College. The first two elections were easy: George Washington was chosen unanimously.
Yet, as the nineteenth century commenced, there were no consensus candidates. So it fell to the newly created political parties in Congress to put forward nominees for the electors to choose. This system, referred to as “King Caucus” by presidential scholars, gave way in the 1830s to national nominating conventions where the party bosses from each state now chose the parties’ nominees.
By the turn of the 20th century, reform-minded Progressives such as Robert La Follette of Wisconsin sought to break the state party bosses’ stranglehold on the process by seeking the direct election of convention delegates. Florida was the first state to hold a “primary” in 1904, and by 1912 fifteen states had some type of primary election.
Yet, for the next six decades, primaries and caucuses played a relatively minor role in choosing nominees. It wasn’t until after the raucous Democratic convention of 1968 that primaries and caucuses became what they are today – the means by which a candidate captures enough delegates to secure the party nomination.
Since the 1972 cycle then, the party faithful in each state rather than the state party bosses or leaders in Congress have chosen the nominee. As far as democracy goes, this is a good thing – but it has had its unintended consequences. By most accounts, now candidates must appeal to the base of their parties during the primaries, only to quickly pivot to the center sometime in the late spring or early summer in preparation for the national conventions, the first major opportunity a more moderate electorate gets to assess the party nominees.
Mitt Romney threw that old playbook out and inserted this new one. The pivot came three months later than expected. While no one can argue that President Obama’s first debate performance was strong, one has to wonder whether part of his difficulty was simply in being caught flat-footed and unprepared for Romney’s 11th hour transformation. After Romney explained, for example, that he did not have a $5 trillion tax cut, the best Obama could muster in response was “now 5 weeks before the election, he’s saying his big bold idea is ‘never mind.’”
Certainly not a very forceful response, but also not a well-prepared response.
Since then, Obama has done better to question why Romney has had these moderate conversions at such a late point in the election. His stump speeches are now organized around a discussion of the pre-existing condition known as “Romnesia,” which he claims ObamaCare covers. On a more serious note, Obama has taken to directly questioning Romney’s character by labeling him untrustworthy, and being “all over the map” on both domestic and foreign policy.
Whatever one thinks about Romney’s new playbook or Obama’s retooled efforts to thwart it, Romney’s audacious strategy has its logic, which is also rooted in the nature of modern presidential campaigns. He has captured the base of the Republican Party which at this point is ravenous for a victory. Had he moved to the center three months ago, conservatives may have turned off. Now it is less likely.
At the same time, he is appealing to low information independent voters which may be tuning in for the first time and have no idea who Mitt Romney was in the primaries – or really don’t care.
In less than two weeks, we will see if this gamble pays off.
Malone is associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Pace University, New York City.