30 May 2023

Our Endless Presidential Campaigns

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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 their hero.

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 smoke-filled rooms.

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 feasible.

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 state legislatures.

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.

Click here to access the full article on The Wall Street Journal.

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