Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Endless American Vote

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian:

Here we are, a full fourteen months before Americans cast their ballots for their next president, and already the race is in full swing. Why?

It’s the result of the law of unintended consequences.

In the “bad old days,” candidates were selected by party delegates at their respective national conventions, held during the summer preceding the November election.

Rarely did one aspirant have the necessary 50 per cent needed to win coming into the convention, and so there was drama and uncertainty, politicking and horsetrading.

But the American primary system has changed all that.

A primary election allows each party’s supporters in a state to select delegates committed to one or another candidate running for the nomination of their party. These delegates must vote, on the first ballot, for that candidate at the party’s convention.

Primary elections were introduced by political reformers as a way to lessen the influence of political “bosses” making deals in “smoke-filled back rooms.” In 1910, Oregon became the first state to establish a presidential primary in which delegates were required to support the winner of the primary at their convention. By 1920 there were 20 states with primaries.

Today, all 50 states hold primaries (or, in a few cases such as Iowa, caucuses, which are similar). If no candidate wins a majority of delegates during the primary season, the nominee is chosen by the convention. But this has not occurred since the Republican convention of 1976, when incumbent president Gerald Ford narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan.

States now vie for earlier primaries in order to claim greater influence in the nomination process, since candidates can ignore primaries which fall after the nomination has already been effectively won. So most primaries now take place in a compressed time frame.

As states continue to compete with each other to see who can hold their presidential primary first, by next February 5 – called “Tsunami Tuesday” because 19 states will be holding primaries that day – probably more than half the delegates to both major parties’ conventions will have been chosen. (In fact, six states will have held primaries or caucuses even before that date.)

This compressed calendar obviously favours front-runners with financial backing. It limits the ability of lesser-known candidates to raise money for advertising to increase their visibility among voters.

It also means that no last-minute entrants can join the race – unless they decide to run as third-party candidates, an onerous and fruitless task. No third party candidate has won a presidential election since 1912.

The Democrats and Republicans having to all intents and purposes picked their candidates by early February, the actual conventions will be little more than exercises in public relations and advertising on behalf of each party’s selection.

So the Democratic and Republican parties will in effect be running nine-month presidential campaigns. How absurd is that?

Instead of “front-loading” the primaries, states should consider moving them back to, say, May and June. Isn’t a five or six month campaign long enough?