Much of this anger seems aimed at the political class, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Not that many of them are distinguishing themselves at the moment. But maybe it’s our institutions that are failing, while our politicians are just along for the ride.
From our antiquated Electoral College to our dysfunctional Congress, fatally flawed tax system, struggling criminal justice system and insane presidential nominating system, we have problems.
Of all of them, our presidential nominating system is perhaps easiest to fix. It has never really worked well. Nevertheless, we are so inured to it; we hardly notice how nutty the process has become.
Let’s use one state, Pennsylvania, to illustrate its sheer madness.
Imagine that Pennsylvania’s two major political parties need to nominate a candidate for statewide office say governor, the closest state analogue to a president.
In the real world, Pennsylvania has a fairly coherent primary system that nominates statewide candidates on a single day in the spring of election years.
But let’s suppose that Pennsylvania’s nominating system operated just as our national nominating system operates.
So, gubernatorial nominations are made at the county level (in all 67 of them) just as presidential nominations now are made at the state level (in all 50 of them). Some counties vote on nominees in countywide elections, others hold “caucuses” to nominate, while still others delegate the choice to local party officials.
In our imaginary nominating system, the state tries to tell the counties when to vote, but most counties resist this. Some counties go early in the year and some late. It’s quite a hodgepodge. The earliest county to vote is sparsely populated Perry County in the center of the state, with a mostly rural population, involved heavily in agriculture.
Truth be told, Perry is not very representative of the rest of Pennsylvania. But it has been first so long that both press and candidates flock to it and settle there for months prior to voting day. Perry doesn’t actually get to determine nominees by itself, but it winnows the field down to three or fewer.
The job of winnowing the field down to just two or so goes to tiny Forest County in the North Country. Since Perry uses a caucus to nominate, Forest is actually the first county to have a countywide primary election.
No one remembers how it evolved that Forest County, small and remote, got to be the first primary. But the county economy has become dependent on the hordes of journalists, candidates, campaign staffs, and others that troop into town every four years. Local officials in Forest probably would rather cut down every tree in the county than give up their priority position.
A handful of bigger and medium sized counties scattered willynilly all over the state, vote soon after Forest. Then over the next four months or so all the other counties will vote – some on the same day, and others by themselves.
But after Forest County votes, the nominee will be pretty clear. Candidates who don’t do well in Perry or Forest Counties drop out because they have trouble attracting financial support or media attention.
Some people find it strange that a couple of small and unrepresentative counties have so much clout over the nomination, while the bigger and more populous counties like Philadelphia or Allegheny (Pittsburgh) have little influence. Some even argue that the best candidates are not chosen this way.
Change, however, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Perry and Forest Counties like the system the way it is now. And political party leaders can’t seem to agree on a better system, despite the chaos now underway.
Happily this imaginary nominating system doesn’t exist in Pennsylvania or any other state. No state is looney enough to adopt it. Unhappily, though a particularly virulent version of it does exist nationally for nominating presidential candidates. The months long ordeal just completed in Iowa is exhibit A.
Created as an historical anomaly; Iowa (think Perry County) guards its front-runner status with the zealousness of a lioness guarding her cubs.
Next in the nomination schedule comes the just concluded New Hampshire primary (think Forest County). It has even fewer delegates at stake than Iowa and is almost as unrepresentative of the nation as a whole.
By the time New Hampshire has voted, most of the time race is really down to two or three candidates, again serving as a winnowing process. Already, many good candidates have withdrawn or have been so wounded they cannot recover. Two small, mostly rural, and very unrepresentative states have set the stage for the deal to be sealed.
How did this nomination nightmare come about? Like so many policy train wrecks it started as a “reform” – a reform designed to end political boss selection of nominees, while bringing more voters into an open and representative process.
In fact, almost the opposite occurred. With few exceptions, and this year being one of them, voting turnout in the caucuses and primary elections is anemic. Worse perhaps, the nomination contest is usually over long before half of the states have had an opportunity to participate.
Nor are the delegates’ chosen to go to the conventions very representatives of rank and file voters. Studies have shown that Democratic convention attendees are wealthier, more liberal, and more likely to be in public service than rank and file Democrats while Republicans are better off and more conservative than rank and file Republicans.
Certainly, better presidents have not been a consequence of this rag tag process. Great leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelt’s were all nominated before the modern era of primaries and caucuses. There are solutions and good ones including rotating regional primaries or even a national primary.
But Congress and party leaders must act to achieve any of them. Before that can happen we must acknowledge the fact that our presidential nominating system has deteriorated far beyond the point that any mere tinkering will fix it.
We need to fundamentally rethink how we nominate a president.
Now’s the time to do that as we again plunge into the quadrennial lunacy that marks our efforts to nominate candidates for president. 2016 is not the first time we have confronted the inherent craziness in our national nominating system – but it can be the last.