On March 23, Ted Cruz announced he is running for
president in a packed auditorium at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
On April 7, Rand Paul announced he is running for president amid
the riverboat décor of the Galt House hotel in Louisville, Ky. On April 12, Hillary
Clinton announced she is running for president in a brief segment of
a two-minute video. On April 13, Marco Rubio announced he is
running before a cheering crowd at the Freedom Tower in Miami. And these
are just the official announcements.
With some 570 days left until Election Day 2016, the race
for president is very much under way—to the dismay of a great many Americans.
They find the news coverage of the candidates tiresom, are depressed by the
negative campaigning that is inevitable in an adversarial process, and dread
the onslaught of political TV ads. Too much too soon!
American presidential campaigns did not always begin so
soon, but they have for more than a generation now. Why are American
presidential campaigns so lengthy? And is there anything that can be done to
compress them to a bearable timetable? One clue to the answers: The
presidential nominating process, the weakest part of our political system, is
also the one part that was not envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The framers
of the Constitution created a powerful presidency, confident (justifiably, as
it turned out) that its first incumbent, George Washington, would set
precedents that would guide the republic for years to come.
But they did not foresee that even in Washington’s
presidency, Americans would develop political parties, which they abhorred. The
Founders expected that later presidents would be chosen, usually by the House
of Representatives, from local notables promoted by different states in the
Electoral College. They did not expect that the Federalist and Republican
parties would coalesce around two national leaders—Washington’s vice
president, John Adams, and Washington’s first secretary of
state, Thomas Jefferson—in the close elections of 1796 and 1800.
How would the parties choose presidential nominees? The
answer was provided by the short-lived Anti-Masonic party, which held a
national convention with state delegates in September 1831—more than a year
before the general election—and nominated longtime Attorney General William
Wirt, who (as it happened) was not anti-Masonic. In December 1831, Jackson’s
opponents held a National Republican convention and nominated Clay. In
response, Jackson’s supporters convened the first Democratic national
convention—there have since been 45 more of them—where they nominated the
adroit political operative Martin Van Buren to be the running mate for
The newspaper coverage of that convention, notably by H.L.
Mencken for the Baltimore Sun, is still savored by political junkies—the
delegates sweltering in those pre-air-conditioning days and nights, enduring
endless speeches, demonstrations and roll calls. Political reporters still
occasionally yearn for the conventions of yore, with their multiple ballots,
favorite-son candidates, votes held back in early ballots and negotiations in
But those quaint customs existed for a reason. For more than
a century, the national conventions were a communications medium, the one place
where support for candidates could be accurately gauged, the one forum in which
genuine bargaining could take place. Politicians were reluctant to negotiate in
writing, and until the 1960s, Americans rarely did business on long-distance
telephone calls or traveled around the country on jet aircraft. So political bargaining
had to wait until they got off the train in the convention city.
The result was that no one knew how much support candidates
had until the first roll call was completed. Going into the 1940 Republican
national convention, the detail-minded Thomas Dewey thought he was near
the 501-vote majority, but he had only 360 on the first ballot, and he lost on
the sixth to the dark horse Wendell Willkie. John Kennedy wasn’t sure
he had the votes in 1960 in Los Angeles; he got over the top only with the
votes of Wyoming, the last state on the alphabetical roll call.
Technology and politics combined to deprive the national
conventions of their monopoly as a communications medium more than four decades
ago. Long-distance telephone and jet travel made preconvention bargaining
Kennedy’s key victories in the 1960 Wisconsin and West
Virginia primaries inspired others to challenge the traditional power
brokers. In the early 1970s, the campaign calendar was transformed by the
reform commission authorized by the 1968 Democratic convention and first headed
by George McGovern(who would win the party’s nomination in 1972). The new
rules prodded most states to hold primaries and, for Democrats, established
quotas for black, female and younger delegates. The rules were rejiggered by
successive Democratic commissions, at a time when Democrats controlled most
Under these new arrangements, delegates were no longer
closed-mouth political insiders but declared supporters selected by candidates’
campaigns—which made it possible for the media to do delegate counts well
before conventions started. This sort of analysis was pioneered by Martin
Plissner of CBS News in 1968, and it proved its mettle in the close
Ford-Reagan contest for the Republican nomination in 1976. With the stakes
visible so much earlier, these changes meant, inevitably, that campaigns would
start earlier and last longer.
Some nostalgists long for a return to the old convention
system and lament the rules changes that, they argue, prevent wise political
veterans from choosing enlightened and inspiring leaders. But by the 1960s, the
party insiders were out of sync with their parties’ changing constituencies. Today it isn’t possible, even with a field of
candidates as large as this cycle’s Republican pack, to have a classically
brokered convention. The probing and negotiation that used to be confined to
the convention week is already going on invisibly all around us, in videos and
emails and tweets, and it has been for months. It cannot be stopped without
banning cellphones, jet airliners and the Internet.
So what can be done to make the permanent campaign less
permanent? Proposals for a quick national primary or sets of primaries are
going nowhere. Previous rules changes tended to lengthen the process. The
attempt by the GOP’s Mr. Priebus to compress the calendar—by confining the
first four contests to February, limiting debates and holding the Republican
convention in July—is a small step in shortening it. If state parties and
legislatures cooperate, as seems likely but not certain, the Iowa caucus won't be
held, as in 2008 and 2012, on the ninth day of Christmas.
And a long campaign does test candidates’ skill and
endurance—and give millions of people a chance to participate. Maybe it’s worth
taking an unpleasantly long time to choose the person to fill an office whose
dimensions were designed for George Washington.
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article on The Wall Street Journal.