How long should it take to elect a president? In a ministerial-style European system (the Canadians have it too), the contending political parties each choose a “leader” behind closed doors who will represent them in a general election and who automatically assumes power as prime minister if his or her party wins a majority of legislative seats. In a two-party system, this is a simple procedure; where there is a significant third party or a multiparty system, the leader of the party with a plurality of seats is “asked” to form a government by a ceremonial monarch or president, and attempts to negotiate a coalition with another party or parties until he or she is assured of a legislative majority. That is the case, for example, in Israel, where the leading party usually wins no more than a quarter of the seats. The fun and games in such a system therefore begins after the election, when the horse-trading over cabinet seats and policy positions begins, also behind closed doors. Sometimes a deal is struck quickly; sometimes it drags on for weeks or months. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, as is presently the case in Spain. Then you have a new election and start all over again.
Nobody ever said that representative democracy wasn’t a messy business.
In America, the process is reversed. The president is directly elected, and it is the contest to choose the candidates of the two major parties that takes all the time, and I do mean time. America has fifty states, and each has a primary election or caucus at a date of its own choosing between January and June of the election year, preceded by six months to a year of politicking during which the prospective candidates introduce themselves to the parties whose nomination they seek and to the public at large. This makes the election process an eighteen to twenty-four month ordeal within a four-year cycle, during which many a voter doubtless comes to wish that all the candidates would just get on a plane and go crash somewhere. The good news is that the president is chosen on election day, with no haggling after—unless, of course, the race is too close to call, as it was in 2000 when the Supreme Court stepped in on dubious legal grounds and decided the winner by a 5-4 vote, thereby negating the ballots of about 120 million Americans and making the choice for us themselves.
The primary system has been with us for about a century, when Theodore Roosevelt thrust it upon us in the course of his ill-fated bid for the Republican Party nomination in 1912. Until then, political candidates were chosen, European-style, behind closed doors. Sometimes, party bosses picked well-known figures or military heroes. Sometimes, they chose totally obscure individuals, for reasons best known to themselves. Teddy Roosevelt himself ran in 1904 against a certain Judge Alton B. Parker. Never heard of him? Neither had anyone else at the time. TR, the sitting president, won handily.
Our present system, clearly, is a Rube Goldberg contraption run wild. Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the least demographically representative states in the Union, hold their primaries first. Then a battery of states from the Old Confederacy weigh in, a consolation prize for having been compelled to remain within the Union against their will. New York doesn’t vote until April. California, the largest state in the Union, votes at the very end in June.
Each state sets its own rules. Some states have elections, some with crossover balloting and some restricted by voter registration, so that registered Democrats alone can vote for the Democratic candidate and registered Republicans for the Republican one. This seems logical, for unaffiliated voters can easily cast spoiler votes to tilt the nomination process. On the other hand, when they vote in the general election, all voters, regardless of registration, are free to select anyone they please, so that restricting their choices in the primaries makes less if any sense. This is complicated by the fact that about 40% of the electorate identifies itself as independent and registers with neither party. In states that do not permit crossover balloting, therefore, the largest group of voters is excluded from the primary process altogether.
It only gets more interesting from there. Some states don’t have regular-style elections but, as in Iowa, caucuses, where interested voters show up, listen to argument and lobbying, and cast their votes in quasi-anarchic conditions in which an accurate count is more or less anyone’s guess. In some states, the winner of a majority or plurality of votes wins the commitment of the entire slate of convention delegates; in some cases, the votes are apportioned proportionally or by congressional district. Pennsylvania Republican delegates are chosen by a unique system: of the state’s 71 delegates, only 17 are pledged by the outcome of the vote, while the remaining 54 are free to choose any candidate they like—in other words, they are not elected at all.
The Democrats have their own wrinkle on the process. Of their 5,477 delegates, 4,765 are chosen by election or caucus, winner-take-all or proportionally, but 712 so-called superdelegates, normally party officials or functionaries, are free, like the 54 Pennsylvania Republicans, to choose anyone they like. The Democrats introduced this system in the 1980s to give party professionals a hand on the electoral lever—in other words, to negate the entire primary process if it produced an unacceptable result, say, an independent running for the nomination outside the party establishment itself. Can you say Bernie Sanders?
Ironically, the result of this little insurance policy will be to deny the party establishment’s preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, a primary victory without the help of superdelegates. Clinton has won about 55% of the delegates in the state balloting to Sanders’ roughly 45%. With less than a quarter of the pledged delegates still to be chosen, Clinton would need to win nearly 70% of this remaining number to get the 2,383 votes she needs to win the nomination without unelected superdelegate support. In other words, what she almost certainly could have won on her own will have to be handed to her by party functionaries.
The Republicans, of course, are dealing with an insurgent candidacy of their own, that of Donald Trump. Almost every prominent Republican in the country apart from Chris Christie has been trying to stop Trump ever since his campaign gained traction. This effort will almost certainly fail. The party will nominate a candidate its professionals hate this coming July, whom they fear will drag it down to calamitous defeat if not wreck it entirely. This is a fate the Republicans have entirely earned, were the alternative for the country not Hillary Clinton.
About two-thirds of the country hates and fears Trump about as much the Republican party sachems do, though not necessarily for the same reasons. Nearly as many people have a negative view of Clinton. The country will then, courtesy of the party system, be presented with a choice most people feel to be unpalatable if not downright scary.
In 2000, when the country was presented with a choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush, most people wished they could have voted for Bill Clinton instead. In 2016, most of them will probably wish they could vote for Barack Obama, and, really, Bill Clinton was a scalawag and Obama is a below-average college professor.
How did things get this bad? I’ll try to figure that out next week.