The current presidential selection system is broken. The way to fix it is by returning to strong parties at the national, state, and local levels. The 2004 Senate election and 2008 Presidential election of Barack Obama demonstrate how outside actors can create political momentum to capture a political party. This results in a party that to a great extent reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the leader while reducing the strength of the party to constrain their actions. While parties are not mentioned in the Constitution, they rose to prominence early in the life of the nation as a way to organize majority and minority interests and preclude personal contests of ambition or a descent into geographic or narrow interest. The change in the presidential election system in addition to other structural changes to the federal government (primarily the administrative state) has shifted power to outside individuals. Without structural reforms, capture of political parties is likely to continue occurring and thereby jeopardize the stability of the regime.

The presidential selection system has undergone changes throughout the history of the American republic. There have been five methods of election: constitutional, caucus, convention, mixed, and finally primary systems. The Founders created the constitutional system, designing the presidency itself to promote energy and stability in the executive while maintaining the liberty, security, and republicanism of the people. Each of the methods promotes certain tendencies in both the pursuit and exercise of presidential power, thereby influencing the office, the regime, and the citizenry. The reforms instituted in the 1960’s and 1970’s by political parties, particularly the Democratic National Party, to make the process more directly democratic, has had deleterious effects.

The goal in reform should be strengthened political parties that reflect and refine the will of the people while constraining demagoguery, image politics, issue appeals, mob passion, and the dominance of one man. While parties are not perfect, they have the benefit of controlling seditious factions and demagogic appeals, help constrain ambitious men, and provide a means of holding officials accountable. The accomplishment of these aims assumes parties have a common conception of the ends of government and are not fighting over regime-level questions but are rather focused on the means to achieve the ends of government. In order to properly understand the system, it is first necessary to know what the Founders intended, the history of the system, the reforms instituted, and their effects.

The Founders were not only concerned with how the president was elected but also with what kind of men would be selected, how they would campaign for office, the effect this would have on the American regime, and thereby the character of the citizens. According to James W. Ceaser, “The Founders’ two main objectives for presidential selection were to help secure the executive’s independence from Congress and to prevent the kind of campaign that would undermine the constitutional character of the office.”[1] Due to these concerns, they created the Electoral College and expected it to perform four functions: (1) ensure men of reputation sought the office, (2) smooth the transition between presidents regarded as legitimate, (3) ensure the selection of competent men, and (4) “prevent the harmful effects of the pursuit of office by highly ambitious contenders.”[2] The Founders believed the Electoral College would ensure that only ambitious men who through their actions had earned a high reputation would be sufficiently known throughout the nation to garner the votes of enough electors to become president. This would ensure that men of character and competence would stand out and be selected. The distance between the Electoral College and the masses would also help ensure that the populace would usually view the winner as legitimate, preventing the chaos that might transpire in a direct or legislative election.

Directly related to the four functions the Founders expected the Electoral College to perform are six general ends they wanted it to achieve. According to Herbert Storing,

The ends of any system for electing the president, as the framers saw them, were something like the following: (1) it should provide for significant participation by the people at large; (2) it should foster political stability and avoid the excesses of partisanship and factionalism which tend to form around important elections; (3) it should give some special place of influence to some individuals who are specially informed about and committed to the process of government; (4) it should recognize that this is a nation of states and give some weight to the interests of states as such; (5) it should leave the president independent of any other institution of government; and (6) it should, of course, tend to produce presidents of respectable character and intelligence.[3]

This system provided for stable democracy under competent leadership: presidents able to lead the country through both peacetime and war. The system also helped ensure the office would be independent and filled (hopefully) by men who had earned repute by demonstrating both intelligence and character.

The office as the Founders established it is singular with clear lines of responsibility, possessing the requisite powers to act, elected by the nation via the Electoral College, composed of men of reputation, independent of Congress and the states. These factors provide for the strong and energetic execution of the laws. The Founders were not only concerned that the election of the president be based upon the consent of the majority (which it was, although indirectly), but also with the effect this would have upon the performance of executive functions and the citizenry.

The Constitutional plan created by the Founders was short lived because it failed to anticipate party politics. Electors were assigned to states based upon the number of representatives they had in Congress. Each elector had two votes to cast, one of which must be for a candidate outside his own state. This stipulation was designed to curtail the favored son dilemma. In the event of a tie, the vote would be decided by the House of Representatives. The Constitutional system entrusted the discretion of electors to choose a man of national character who would have the requisite talent, reputation, and experience to lead the nation. This system was drastically affected by the rise of parties—something not mentioned in the Constitution. In response, the caucus system was created.

The caucus system began operating after the institution of parties and was “the only practical institutional mechanism readily at hand—meetings of the parties’ membership in Congress.”[4] This, according to Dr. Ceasar, had the effect of narrowing the field of candidates through the preferences of the parties. It allowed the majority of electors to be bound.[5] The caucus system faced problems when the Democrat-Republican party became the dominant party. The existence of only one party essentially guaranteed the selection of their candidate but at great cost—the weakening of party unity and the calling into question the independence of the electors.

In response to the perceived ills of the caucus system—primarily the lack of a winner in the Electoral College, throwing the election into the House of Representatives—Martin Van Buren reinstated two-party competition. Party competition would moderate appeals, channel ambition, and prevent elections going into the House of Representatives. The parties would absorb the interests and ambitions of the citizenry, becoming a moderating influence that would secure the stability of the system. Each party would select delegates to a convention where presidential candidates would be selected. After a candidate’s selection, supporters would campaign for him before the Electoral College chose the next president. The convention system, however, faced a legitimacy problem. James W. Ceasar in Presidential Selection wrote,

It was replaced… with disputes over the legitimacy of the nomination process and with a concern over the quality of the persons selected by parties that bordered on a concern for legitimacy. The Progressives decried the monopoly over nomination by bodies that subordinated considerations of leadership qualifications to the parochial and often corrupt interests of the party organizations.[6]

While there were irregularities within the system that required correction, the Progressives subordinated all other considerations to the promotion of a pure democracy and a visionary, presidential-leadership style—one with the ability to promote change. Their efforts at reforming the system were only partially successful.

The mixed system resulted from the Progressives’ criticism. They demanded a more direct democracy in order to facilitate change. Progressives felt constrained by the convention system; the parties limited both who would be elected and the voice of the rank and file. These constraints made it difficult for them to achieve their agenda. The Progressives promoted three aims: (1) ending corruption in the system, (2) removing the influence of interest groups, and (3) “alter[ing] the American political system so that it would be more open to change originating from the national government.”[7] Woodrow Wilson and his compatriots advocated the primary system for the purpose of promoting a presidential leadership style that would allow the president to elaborate his own vision for the country, facilitating change through a supposed electoral mandate. Elections would be decided before the convention stage; states would partly regulate their parties. A national primary would free candidates from issues, political deals, and party norms, allowing them to create national constituencies. While not successful in creating a national primary system, the Progressives’ changes were instrumental in implementing the primary system on the state level: several states adopted the primary system. This would change later in the century.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention was accused of being unfair and undemocratic. In response, reforms were deemed necessary for the 1972 convention. The McGovern-Fraser Commission was created. When the commission issued its report in 1971, it was favorably received and largely implemented. On the state level, parties were required to institute the following changes: (1) the implementation of affirmative action steps to eliminate discrimination, (2) the reformation of state rules to encourage maximum participation, (3) insistence on steps to advance representation of minority views, and (4) the abolishment of ex officio delegates.[8] The Commission stated, “We are less concerned with the product of the meetings than the process, although we believe that the product will be improved in the give and take of open, fairly conducted meetings.”[9] The national party forced these changes upon the state parties and was instrumental in enacting state law requiring the same for all parties. Focusing on the process while deprioritizing the results stands in striking contrast to the deep concern of the Founders that the process be consistent with republican principles and operate in a manner that would promote the stability, security, liberty, and efficient administration of the country. While there were irregularities that required correction, the McGovern-Frasier report ignored the goals of the Founders and their cognizance of the effect of inputs and outputs. The McGovern-Frasier Commission failed to recognize indirect representation is both consistent with republican principles and necessary to prevent mob passion and faction.

These reforms have had staggering repercussions: the dominance of state primaries over conventions throughout the United States, a weakening of the parties at both the national and state levels, the removal of discretion from electors, a diminishment of the people’s ability to hold elected officials responsible through the non-election of party candidates, the strengthening of campaign organizations, image appeals, personality politics, reliance upon informal power derived from an electoral mandate rather than the formal powers of the office, and demagogic rhetoric. Many state laws now allow or require electors to declare their candidate preferences on the ballot, thus removing the discretion of the elector, ultimately making the Electoral College less of the deliberative body the Founders envisioned. These changes have made it more difficult for the American public to hold independent candidates—those with no party affiliation or a loose party affiliation—accountable for their actions. Their lack of party identification makes them mavericks. Worse yet, campaigns built on personality politics or issue appeals predicated on promises to act on current issues are demagogic in nature, either flattering voters or using fear tactics that effectively attract a certain segment of voters but ultimately divide the nation. Reforms—perhaps well-meant but irrational—have made politics highly divisive, volatile, and driven by personalities. The Founders were very wary of the effects of both demagoguery and faction upon republics. These two ills were historically the leading contributors to the fall of republics. The Framers instituted a system intended to limit demagoguery and faction while channeling the ambitions of presidential hopefuls in a safe manner.

The current presidential selection system used by the national parties (1) reduces the deliberation of the Electoral College, (2) promotes image appeals, (3) encourages candidates to create an independent campaign organization and take over their party, and (4) creates a focus on the personality of the candidate. The result has been an escalation of demagogic rhetoric along with the belief that the president has an electoral mandate he must fulfill regardless of the steady will of the people or the Constitution.

In the interests of promoting representative deliberation, a return to the Founder’s intentions and the restraint of the very excesses the Founder’s recognized and feared, the following reforms should be instituted: (1) national parties should reduce the number of binding rules on state parties, (2) national parties should agree to a shortened primary season, (3) states should allow state parties to determine their selection system, and (4) ex officio delegates should not be banned.

National parties need to return authority to the states and the state parties, giving due weight to the importance of states in American government. This will require national parties refrain from creating and enforcing excessive, nationally-binding rules. Such changes would return an element of federalism to the system, allowing the states and state parties to create a system reflective of the needs and desires of their citizens, providing the chance for improvement in the political system. Under the current system parties must adhere to their state rules—rules which were largely written and enacted under the Progressives’ control of state legislatures. Progressives legislated laws that constrain party freedom, compelling parties to act in accord with the Progressives’ agenda. In the interest of freedom and in the spirit of the Constitutional liberty, it is therefore necessary that states repeal these constraining laws. Political parties should have the freedom to determine their own candidate selection process, one that allows for differences in political view, agenda, and local conditions.

Shortening the timespan of state primaries is a needed reform. This goal would require parties agreeing to the same primary timeframe on the national level and their strenuous admonishment of its adherence on the state level. A mandate for shortened primaries would help alleviate the problem of front-loading the primaries. A shortened primary would also have the effect of reducing the time incumbents are forced to spend campaigning, thus enabling them to focus more time on the actual business of governing. The current practice of commencing primaries earlier and conducting them longer is an impediment to good government. A shorter, designated primary period would also help ameliorate the weariness citizens experience from the lengthy campaign season.

The election of ex officio delegates is another way to further deliberation in the presidential selection process, increasing the inclusion of active and informed participants. Deliberation could be achieved by setting aside a percentage of ex officio delegates for this class. Ex officio delegates should be selected from those who have served their party for years in various roles. This means of selecting ex officio delegates would infuse experience and maturity into the party’s presidential nominating process. Prudent deliberation from experienced delegates would also bring a more holistic reflection of the party’s values and interests. One word of caution: this option should be prudently exercised. In the past Progressives have rightfully complained the election system has been overly controlled by party bosses who placed personal and party interests over the good of the nation, thus corrupting the system. Therefore, the number of ex officio delegates should be appropriately limited so that the legitimacy of the process will not be called into question.

Faction and demagoguery have been the most common ills plaguing republics throughout history. The Founders attempted to solve these problems by creating a republican form of government grounded upon the consent of the people, in an extended territory, with the checks, balances, and separation of powers necessary to create a stable government that would protect the people’s property and secure their rights. A strong executive, independent of Congress, with the legitimacy and authority to lead the country through exigencies was and is essential to the republican system the Founders established. The selection of the president through the Electoral College was intended to remain true to republican principles while also creating separation from the masses—a separation necessary for tempered reason to prevail in the selection of an individual of the proper character, intellect, energy, and ability to gain the office. The electoral system is democratic in that it is based on the consent of the people who choose their electors. At the same time the Electoral College brings experience, wisdom, and stability to the selection of our nation’s foremost leader.

National parties and state laws influence how the presidential selection system operates, winnowing candidates before the Electoral College elects the president. It is presently common for candidates to run outside campaigns that rely upon demagogic rhetoric, issue appeals, and the personality of the candidate to capture a national party’s nomination and utilize its resources. The national parties have contributed to the decline in deliberative representation and the current method of campaigning through nationally-binding rules—especially the Democratic National Party—and laws governing state primaries. Restoring the deliberative process would improve the system of selecting presidents and positively influence the regime, the office, and the citizens of the United States.

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Notes:

[1] James W. Caesar, “Political Parties and Presidential Ambition,” The Journal of Politics 40, no. 3 (1978): 717.

[2] Ibid., 715.

[3] Herbert Storing, “In Defense of the Electoral College,” in Towards a More Perfect Union, ed. Joseph M. Bessette (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 1995), 398.

[4] James W. Ceasar, Reforming the Reforms: A Critical Analysis of the Presidential Selection Process (Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1982), 14.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] James W. Ceaser, Presidential Selection: Theory and Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 35.

[7] Ceaser, Reforming the Reforms, 23.

[8] “The McGovern-Fraser Commission Report” in The Evolving Presidency: Landmark Documents, 1787-2015, ed. Michael Nelson (Thousand Oaks: CQ Press, 2016), 195-198.

[9] Ibid., 199.

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