Strengths and weaknesses of the nominating process

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the presidential nomination process?

The system is open to the public and actively encourages a much wider voter participation in the selection of candidates. Indeed the increasing use of primaries was a direct result of the McGovern-Fraser reforms, which followed the victory of Hubert Humphrey, who secured the Democratic nomination in 1968 despite standing in no primaries.

The process is also open to any aspiring candidate. In this way, little-known outsider candidates (insurgents), such as Carter 1976 Barack Obama in 2008, can rapidly rise to prominence and secure a party's nomination. However, the possibility that an 'insurgent' could capture the nomination has also resulted in the Trump presidency.

It is more democratic for candidates to be selected by voters, rather than party bosses in smoke-filled rooms. Supporters argue that, while the current presidential nomination process is far from perfect, the old system was far more undemocratic and elitist. Before 1820, Democrat and Republican Members of Congress would simply meet together and collectively decide who they wanted to nominate to run for president. Eventually, others in the parties also wanted to influence the candidate selection, and so, in the 1830s, the parties began to make their final choice at a national convention, with delegates attending from across the country. The choice of delegates, and their final decision, was heavily influenced by well-connected state party bosses, rather than average party members. In the early 20th Century, campaigners began to argue that the selection process should become more open and inclusive . Some states began to hold ‘presidential preference’ elections, the results of which delegates were expected to consider, but were not bound to follow. Other state parties allowed voters to elect the delegates attending the conventions, but with no guarantees over how these delegates would vote. Outrage at this process peaked in 1968. Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy won 6 of the 13 Democratic primaries, and the most nationwide votes, but, at the Democratic Convention, the party establishment instead selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not run in a single primary. Anger over this result led to the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which argued that delegate selection had to become more formalised and open. This led many states to introduce binding primary elections.

The system is open to the public and actively encourages a much wider voter participation in the selection of candidates. Indeed the increasing use of primaries was a direct result of the McGovern-Fraser reforms, which followed the victory of Hubert Humphrey, who secured the Democratic nomination in 1968 despite standing in no primaries.

The process is also open to any aspiring candidate. In this way, little-known outsider candidates (insurgents), such as Carter 1976 Barack Obama in 2008, can rapidly rise to prominence and secure a party's nomination. However, the possibility that an 'insurgent' could capture the nomination has also resulted in the Trump presidency.

However... delegates and party bosses still retain influence they would not have in a direct election.

In the years following the McGovern-Fraser Commission’s report, voters have gained far more influence over the selection of presidential candidates. But many remain unaware of the fact that, even today, instead of voting for a presidential candidate in a direct election, they are instead voting for a slate of delegates who have pledged to vote for a particular candidate at their party’s national convention. Confusingly, the national and state parties have very different rules governing the selection of delegates, and how they must vote at the convention. Today, most delegates are ‘bound’, meaning that, at the convention, they are required to vote for the candidate they originally pledged to support. However, in 2016 some states’ delegates became ‘unbound’ once the candidate they originally pledged to support dropped out of the race. Other states did not bind their delegates at all. The North Dakota Republican Party got around party rules binding delegates to a state-wide vote by simply not holding a vote. All of the state’s delegates were selected by a committee of senior state party officials. These rules often left voters confused as to why the allocation of delegates did not seem to match the popular vote. For example, in the Louisiana Republican primary Donald Trump narrowly beat Ted Cruz in the state-wide vote, and both candidates received 18 proportionally allocated delegates. However, there were also ten unbound delegates in the state. Five delegates were left unbound after an insufficient number of candidates met the threshold (20% vote) for winning a single delegate. Five other delegates became unbound after their pledged candidate, Marco Rubio, dropped out. When it appeared as though these ten delegates would support Cruz, even though he lost the state-wide vote, Trump threatened legal action. Even some ‘bound’ delegates did not vote as they had pledged to. A number of ‘faithless delegates’ refused to follow the results in their state and vote for Trump. Had Trump not secured the 1,237 delegates he needed to win the nomination on the first ballot at the Republican convention, there would have been further ballots, in which most delegates would have become unbound, free to vote however they thought best. The Democrats also have a number of unbound delegates in the form of 712 ‘superdelegates’ - around 15% of the total. In the 2016 race, these senior party officials, (e.g. past Presidents, governors, members of the DNC etc) quickly came out in support of Hillary Clinton, giving her a significant lead before the public even voted. A 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 71% of Americans would prefer to select their party’s nominee in a direct vote, cutting out the role of the delegates, so that voters, not delegates, have the final say.

Far more voters have become involved in the selection process since the McGovern-Fraser reforms.

In 1968, only 11.7 million people took part in the nomination process – around 11% of the voting age population. At this time, only 15 states held primary elections. However, one consequence of the McGovern-Fraser Commission’s recommendations for reform was a significant increase in the number of states using primaries instead of caucuses, which tend to attract fewer voters due to their length, complexity, and lack of anonymity. The number of Democratic primaries increased to 23 in 1972, 28 in 1976 and 31 in 1980. The number of Republican primaries reached 28 in

1976 and 36 in 1980. In 2016, around 61 million people participated in the presidential nomination system – around 29% of the voting age population. At least one primary was held in 41 states, and there were only 14 caucuses.

However... turnout is often very low, giving more ideological voters disproportionate influence.

Voters in more states now have the opportunity to participate in a primary election. The fact that only 29% of the voting age population participates means that winning candidates have a questionable mandate. Turnout can be influenced by state rules, and by the timing of the contest. Open primaries, in which any registered voter can participate, can attract more voters than modified primaries, which also include independent voters, and closed primaries, which are limited to only registered party members. Early voting states like New Hampshire (9Feb - 52% of eligible voters), can also attract more voters than later states like South Dakota (7 June 19.9% of eligible voters) because candidates will drop out over time, and the race can become less competitive. Caucuses, which can take several hours, and lack anonymity, also tend to have lower turnout. Despite being the first contest, only 15.7% of eligible voters participated in the 2016 Iowa caucus. Polls suggest that the few voters who are motivated enough to participate are not entirely representative of the wider population, tending to be better educated, higher earning, and more ideological, which benefits more ideological candidates. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders , for example, enjoyed some of his best results in state caucuses (e.g. 67.9% in Kansas and 79.6% in Alaska).Primaries add a further layer of elections to the process and some argue that the huge number, and frequency, of US elections, adds to a growing sense of voter apathy. Indeed turnout at primaries is often below 10%. 2016 averaged 28%

Similarly, the primary electorate is unrepresentative of the population and tends to be older, wealthier and more ideologically partisan, as seen by the relative success of libertarian Republican Ron Paul in both 2008 and 2012. This might explain the support for Bernie Saunders and Trump.

In addition, the ability of voters to 'raid' opposition primaries is a particular concern in open primaries. This was most recently seen by the efforts of Democrat activists in Michigan to push fellow Democrats into voting for Rick Santorum in the 2012 Republican primary.

Republicans who opposed Trump’s nomination argued that the system is too open to populist outsiders. Since the McGovern-Fraser reforms, voters have selected a number of candidates who almost certainly would not have become their party’s nominee under the old selection process. One of the clearest examples happened in 2016 with the nomination of Donald Trump, a businessman who had never held political office and had previously donated to, and supported, Democrats. Much of the Republican establishment was firmly opposed to Trump’s candidacy. He was endorsed by only a single sitting Senator, 12 sitting Representatives, and 3 sitting governors. Had the Republican nomination been left to the establishment in their ‘smoke filled rooms’, Trump would have almost certainly not have been selected. For his critics, Trump’s nomination is good evidence of the advantages of the old nomination process, which placed more emphasis on peer review. They argue that the establishment would have picked a candidate who was more qualified, more experienced, and less divisive, highlighting that, while Trump won the Electoral College, he lost the popular vote, and has had record low approval ratings while in office. However, Trump supporters would argue that the primaries allowed a candidate of the people- a genuine populist and ant establishment figure to take the party away from the Washington elite.

Under the old nomination process, outsiders could run in the non-binding primary elections to demonstrate their public appeal, but they also had to win the support of their peers, who, having worked alongside them, had first-hand experience of their actual abilities and judgement, not simply their campaigning skills. When John F. Kennedy won the West Virginia primary in 1960, he was able to demonstrate to Democratic leaders that voters were willing to vote for a Catholic, but he still had much work to do to secure the nomination - he had to build a broad coalition of support within the party. The McGovern-Fraser Commission purposely did not recommend the introduction of a direct national popular vote because they did not want to completely eliminate the influence of party leaders. Trump’s critics might complain that, without peer review, populist candidates can win the nomination based on their ability to campaign, rather than their presidential qualities.

However... Hilary Clinton’s nomination suggests that insiders still enjoy an unfair advantage.

While outsider Donald Trump was a controversial nominee in 2016, so too was insider Hillary Clinton. Polls showed that the candidates were two of the least popular and trusted in history. The difference was that Clinton was actually the establishment candidate, and she went on to lose the election. Over 400 superdelegates endorsed Clinton over eight months before any votes were cast. Ultimately, it is arguable that, as Clinton won by 387 pledged delegates, and received over 3.7 million more votes than Sanders, she would have won even without the support of superdelegates. But others argue that it is impossible to know how differently the race would have played out had Clinton not had a ‘head start’. Supporters of outsider candidate Bernie Sanders also frequently suggested that the supposedly neutral Democratic National Committee was in fact helping the Clinton campaign. One example regularly cited was the number, and timing, of the televised primary debates. Only six debates were initially scheduled by the DNC, and several of these were held on Saturday evenings, in competition with high profile sports games and other popular TV shows. The Sanders campaign said that this was an attempt to limit their candidate’s exposure to voters. Others pointed to hacked emails which suggested that Donna Brazile, the vice chair of the DNC, and a contributor to CNN, had supplied the Clinton campaign with questions that would be asked during CNN sponsored primary debates.

Early voting states, which are unrepresentative of the wider population, have too much influence.

In 1968, there were only 2 Republican candidates and 3 Democratic candidates. In 2016, there were 17 Republican candidates and 5 Democratic candidates. However, not all states get to choose from this greatly increased range of candidates, because many end their campaigns if they perform poorly in the opening contests like the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. In 2016, five Republican candidates withdrew during the invisible primary, Mike

Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Rand Paul dropped out after the Iowa caucus, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie and Jim Gilmore withdrew after the New Hampshire primary, and Jeb Bush withdrew after the South Carolina primary. With only three states having voted, the Republican field had shrunk from 17 to 5. The Democratic race was reduced to two candidates after only the Iowa caucus. For candidates that perform well in these early contests, there are significant benefits. The fact that Barack Obama was able to beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Iowa caucus established him as a serious candidate. He appeared on the cover of Newsweek, attracted new volunteers, and broke records by raising $50 million in a single month. It is often argued, “there are only three tickets out of Iowa”. Democratic candidates Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004), Barack Obama (2008) and Hillary Clinton (2016) and Republican candidate George W. Bush all won in Iowa, before going on to secure their party’s nomination. Critics argue that there are a number of problems with the influence wielded by these early states. Firstly, it distorts the campaign. Candidates are encouraged to spend a disproportionate amount of time, and even tailor their policies, to suit the needs of a tiny fraction of voters. Secondly, Iowa and New Hampshire are not particularly representative of a country as diverse as America. Both states have electorates that are older, more rural, and less ethnically diverse than the overall US population.

However... the influence of the early voting states can be overstated.

Defenders of the existing nomination system argue that the influence of the early states can be overstated. John McCain (2008), Mitt Romney (2012) and Donald Trump (2016) all lost in Iowa, and yet went on to win the nomination. Since 1980, only two Republican Iowa winners went on to win the nomination – Bob Dole (1996) and George W. Bush (2000). Similarly, failing to win in New Hampshire didn’t stop Bill Clinton (1992), George W. Bush (2000), and Barack Obama (2008) from winning both their parties’ nomination and the presidential election. Additionally, some argue that, while the first four states to vote in 2016 were individually unrepresentative, they collectively reflected much of America’s diversity. Iowa is an economically poorer, mid-western state, with a large religious population. New Hampshire has a more independent and secular electorate. South Carolina has a large religious and African American population. Finally, Nevada has a large Hispanic population.

Frontloading compresses the race, and creates even more pressure to fundraise.

Rather than holding a single national primary, the logic behind having a staggered series of contests set over several months is that the candidates can prepare for each primary/ caucus one at a time, going from state to state meeting voters. This gives voters more time to learn about the candidates and make a more informed decision. It also lightens the financial burden on the candidates, because they can hope to receive donations over the course of the contest, gaining greater financial support as their campaign gains traction. However, the desire for national relevance has encouraged states to hold their votes increasingly early in the nomination cycle, a practice known as frontloading. In 1980, only 11 states held their contests before April. However, in 2008, 42 states held their contests by the end of March, including many of the largest states, which send the most delegates to the convention. As a result, many candidates have been able to secure the nomination increasingly early on in the year. In 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney received all of the 1,144 delegates he needed between 3 January and 24April, having won 225 delegates on Super Tuesday alone. Super Tuesday began in the 1980s as a means for southern states to increase their influence by all voting on the same day. In 2012, 10 different states all voted on Super Tuesday, with 419 delegates awarded, over 18% of the total. Voters living in states that were not due to hold their votes until May or June, had to accept the fact that the Republican nominee had been chosen before they could even vote. Frontloading also means that candidates need millions right from the start of the year, because they need to be able to compete in multiple contests back to back, or even on the same day.

However... rule changes have limited frontloading, and many recent contests have run to the end.

Both parties have changed their rules to limit frontloading. In 2016, both parties allowed just four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) to hold their primary/ caucus in February. The remaining states were instructed to hold their contestsIn addition, the RNC declared that all contests held between March 1st and 15th had to allocate their delegates proportionally (as the Democrats require for all contests), preventing a single candidate from gaining an early lead unless they had particularly strong support. Republican state parties that waited until after March 15th could use the winner-takes-all allocation process. on or after March 1st . In 2016, this led to more than a dozen states holding their votes on March 1st (Super Tuesday).

. This encouraged some states to wait, because, with all of their delegates at stake, they were still likely to attract significant candidate and media attention. In 2016, only 32 states held their contests before April, and this did not include many of the largest states like California and New York. While it is possible for late voting states to have little influence on the nomination, this has not actually been the case in many recent, surprisingly close, election cycles. In 2008, Barack Obama was not able to declare that he had secured the nomination until June 3rd - the day of the final primaries. In 2016, Donald Trump did not pass the 1,237 delegate threshold until May 26th, with only five primaries remaining. Similarly, Hillary Clinton did not declare victory until June 7th, when there was only a single primary in Washington DC remaining.

All Democratic, and most Republican, primaries are now proportional.

Since 1992, the Democratic Party has had rules requiring delegates to the national convention to be awarded in proportion to the popular vote. In California for example, Hillary Clinton won 53% of the vote, and received 254 delegates, while Bernie Sanders won 46% of the vote, and received 221 delegates. Some have adopted a hybrid system that is neither proportional nor winner -takes-all. For example, Wisconsin awards three delegates to the candidate that wins the most votes in each congressional district, and then a further 18 delegates to the candidate that wins the state-wide vote. In 2016, Ted Cruz won in 6 of Wisconsin’s 8 congressional district s, and also won the state­wide vote, giving him 36 delegates. However, as Donald Trump won in 2 districts, he still received 6 delegates. The result was far from proportional - Ted Cruz won 48.2% of the vote and received 85.7% of the delegates. However, it still allowed Trump to win 6 more delegates than he would have received under a winner-takes-all system.

However.., many Republican contests are still winner-takes-all.

The Republican Party’s rules for how delegates are awarded are slightly more complicated. After the drawn out 2012 contest, the Republican National Committee passed new rules that required any states that hold primaries between 1st March and 14th March to award their delegates on a proportional basis. After March 15 ,state parties were free to award their delegates on a winner-takes-all basis. Supporters argue that the winner-takes-all system makes it easier for a single candidate to secure the nomination, preventing a disruptive ‘brokered convention’, and that it gives smaller and late voting states more influence and attention. However, critics argue that it wastes votes and results in an unfair winner’s bonus. In Florida, Trump received all 99 delegates with only 45.7% of the vote.

The process is arguably far too long, expensive and superficial.

The nomination process has become increasingly lengthy. Candidates have begun their campaigns progressively early in order to raise funds and build the campaign infrastructure they will need for the entire, gruelling campaign. The earlier that candidates announce, the more fundraising becomes necessary, and this vicious cycle has meant that today the selection process starts months before voting begins. In 1960, John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination just 66 days before the first primary. In contrast, Ted Cruz announced his candidacy in March 2015– almost 11 months before voting was due to begin. Critics argue that the focus on fundraising makes candidates too reliant upon wealthy interest groups, and prevents particular types of candidates from succeeding. They argue that it has also contributed to the nomination process becoming increasingly superficial, with a focus on how much money each candidate can raise, rather than their respective policies, and suitability for the job. Many argued that 2016 Republican debates were an excellent example of how the nomination process focuses more on each candidate’s campaigning skills, and ability to gain media attention, rather than truly testing their presidential qualities. Coverage more often focussed on the insults exchanged between the candidates, particularly those made by Trump, who proved adept at controlling the news cycle with his inflammatory comments on TV and social media.

However.., this lengthy process is arguably a fitting test for an extremely important and demanding job.

While the staggered primaries and caucuses certainly do lead to a lengthy nomination process, it also helps outsiders to build momentum. While fundraising is certainly important, it has not necessarily been the candidate that raises the most during the invisible primary that has gone on to secure the nomination. From January 2015-January 2016, Donald Trump was outraised by Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. While Hillary Clinton raised millions more than Bernie Sanders, he managed to come surprisingly close considering that he relied largely on small donations from grassroots support, having refused donations from large corporations, the financial services industry, and any SuperPACs. Finally, some would argue that, while superficial, the primary process is nonetheless a suitably demanding test, asking much of candidates both physically and mentally. The non-stop schedules, regular travel, constant scrutiny, and lack of sleep, gives candidates a preview of what life might be like as president.