Is this any way to pick a president?

Is this any way to pick a president?
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The presidential nomination process is under heavy criticism, and rightfully so. With the Iowa vote count disaster, the lack of diversity of the early voting states that hugely influence the momentum of campaigns and a series of debates that are more theater than substance, how can anyone believe that this process will produce a desirable outcome?

 

The root of the problem is the primary-voting-dominated system for selecting delegates to the national party nominating conventions. Some background puts the current situation in context:

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In 1968, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without entering a single primary. The majority of the convention delegates under the old nomination system had always been party leaders who voted at the national conventions. Populist candidates such as Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern did not stand a chance, despite their having won most of the primaries that year.

 

In 1969 the Democratic Party, in reaction to populist demands for more “power to the people” established a reform commission headed by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.). The commission recommended, and the party adopted, a rules change. The vast majority of delegates to the convention would be chosen by voters in the primaries. McGovern won the nomination under the rules that he largely wrote.

 

 “Power to the people” didn’t work out so well for the Democrats that year, as McGovern lost in a massive landslide to Republican Richard Nixon.

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In the 1960s and 1970s, numerous scholars criticized the new nomination rules and predicted with incredible accuracy the consequences of adopting a popular-vote based system for choosing party nominees.

 

They said mass media, not party leaders, would become the new power brokers, and eventually the arts of Madison Avenue advertising would become more critical to campaign success than the ability to establish working relationships with the people who co-govern with presidents in a separated system.

 

They expressed the concern that a populist demagogue – exactly what the founders of our Republic most feared about the presidency – would rise from the system and destroy the norms and conventions of our very delicately balanced constitutional system.

 

Indeed, the nomination system has evolved to the point where the process clearly is favoring non-conventional, populist candidacies. And we cannot ignore the threat to democratic institutions posed by those who either reject the norms of the system or want to fundamentally overturn the status quo. They can win nominations, and even become president.

 

None of this is to suggest that we get rid of the primaries. The primaries were still relevant prior to 1972. John F. Kennedy prevailed in 1960 because of his performance in primaries, where he overcame concerns of party leaders that maybe he was too young, not ready and unelectable as a Catholic. The primaries were instructive of how well a candidate can run a campaign, but they were not determinative of the outcome of the selection process.

 

Post-McGovern, the Democratic Party tried to create a partial corrective to the new system by adding the so-called super delegates to the nominating conventions. Although only a portion of the overall delegates, they have discretionary power to vote at the convention as they please, without regard to the outcomes of the primaries. Presumably these delegates would favor the more traditional, mainstream candidacies and not ideologues or those calling for a revolution.

 

Yet Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) won a major concession at the 2016 convention: The effective elimination of the super delegates on the first ballot of the convention in 2020. Only on a second ballot do the Super Delegates come into play.

 

The nomination contest right now has all the hallmarks of the GOP side in 2016. A populist candidate without majority support is sweeping through the primaries, while several more mainstream candidates divide up the rest of the vote. None of them seem willing to put aside ambition for the greater good and unite behind a candidate who would be their best shot to win.

 

Sanders, of course, could win a general election, so the 1972 analogy is imperfect. We have a very different Electoral College map than four decades ago, with perhaps only 20 percent of the states in play. If Sanders loses, it won’t be a McGovern-like landslide.

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But a loss means four more years of a Trump presidency. A win means a different kind of presidency for sure — likely one unable to govern effectively in a system resistant to revolutionary-style reforms.

 

At this year’s Democratic convention, perhaps the delegates should consider another rules change.

 

Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.