I had to write a final for my Presidential Primaries, Nominations, & Elections course. We were given a list of questions and had to provide essay answers to them. Mine follows!
1. Summarize the Founders’ criteria for a presidential selection system, then assess the current system—both nomination and general election—by those criteria.
The founders had a number of specific criteria when creating a presidential selection system. The president had to be independent from the legislature, a statesman insulated from public opinion, immune to improper foreign influences, and competent. Our system today satisfies many of these goals, but fails miserably in others.
The party nominations and general election are clearly immune from foreign influences today, as they involve million of people across the entire United States. If a foreign entity has managed to improperly influence this many people, the influence has been public and they have probably succeeded in “subverting” the entire country — at which point it is hardly subversion!
Happily, our presidents are also competent. People may moan about “Dubya” and make references to his “monkey face,” but even when critiquing him on serious policy grounds one must admit that he has generally succeeded at what he set out to do. The glaring exceptions to this (the Iraq War and a domestic agenda on immigration and healthcare) only prove the point: the Iraq War was an institutional failure perpetrated in large part by inherited bureaucracies, and his domestic agenda was opposed on ideological grounds, not competency ones — indeed, many commentators openly admitted that his immigration solution was a practical one.
Again satisfying the Founders’ criteria, the president is unquestionably independent from the legislative branch. He must cooperate with them to some degree if he has a legislative agenda, but Clinton’s humanitarian “interventions” and Bush’s insistence on an Iraq surge demonstrated conclusively that, in foreign affairs, the opinion of the legislature is unlikely to hinder the executive.
Unfortunately, the president is not exempt from popular opinion, and far too often they are not a statesman. The proliferation of polling data and day-to-day scramble against unpopular stories, even for presidents in their second term, illustrate that they continue to care about public opinion in a way that is not healthy for our country. Perhaps the only candidate to truly disregard the public on an issue: John McCain, with his unwavering support for the surge in Iraq — and he lost. George Bush did implement the surge against public opinion polls, but he knew that things would likely go even worse for him and his party in the 2008 elections if he agreed to leave Iraq.
2. What is the case for the Electoral College? What is the case against it? Which do you find more persuasive and why? Would you favor any changes, either incremental or radical, to the system?
The Electoral College has one very strong thing going for it: the electoral college demonstrably works. It has survived 200 years and a civil war without change, and has never been the basis for a serious constitutional or political crisis. Why would we change a system that works?
The argument against the electoral college is very simple: it isn’t “fair.” Critics say that the College ignores the principle of “one man, one vote,” gives disproportionate voting power to residents of small or rural states, and allows the election of a President who most people did not vote for. These are valid criticisms; do the benefits of the electoral college outweigh these concerns?
First, let us disavow the one man, one vote principle. It is appealing for its simple fairness, but is not constitutionally-founded. The votes of residents of a smaller state count for more than those of larger states thanks to the Senate, and “one man, one vote” directly contradicts the avowedly federal nature of our government.
The disproportionate voting power of smaller states is by design. Opponents argue that this is a bad design choice, but (as Judith Best argues), such disproportionate voting is actually a positive feature: it reinforces federalism and encourages presidential candidates to build wide bases of support throughout the country, rather than campaigning on a regional platform. This in particular overcomes the plurality (rather than majority) President flaw.
Another major criticism of the electoral college is the “unit rule” in which states allocate all their votes to the popular vote victor. This is actually not a necessary feature of the electoral college and can be changed by the states at their pleasure — as it is, in the case of Maine and Nebraska. While I am more ambivalent on the unit rule, it too has powerful arguments in favor: the unit rule further encourages broad-based presidents and parties, ensuring that regional candidates will never become President. In general, it acts to exclude third-party candidates from national elections of any sort (a party which cannot produce a candidate is a weak party), but this also is a feature, encouraging big-tent politics and promoting a competing “competence” model of party rather than the fundamentally opposed ideological parties of a parliamentary system. Of course, the unit rule also discourages candidates from campaigning in or catering to states that they cannot win a plurality in, so it also works against national unity.
I do not think that changing the electoral college is in the best interests of the United States, but changing the unit rule might be, and would make many opponents of the electoral college much happier with the system.
3. How are presidential campaigns today similar to the campaign of 1992 as portrayed in The War Room, and how are they different?
Presidential campaigns today are largely similar to that featured in The War Room, but continuing advances in technology (and more experience) have also produced some significant changes. In general, there are two specific components to a presidential campaign: the big-media campaign and the grassroots efforts.
The big-media campaign has changed little since Clinton’s 1992 run. It receives most of the campaign funds for use in television commercials, and the focus is on controlling the news cycle. Campaign ads are used largely to define yourself (positively) and your opponent (negatively). They can also defensively respond to negative stories against yourself, as illustrated when Clinton’s team conceptualizes, writes, and produces a defensive ad in under 6 hours. Changes in this part of the campaign are mostly due to new big-media outlets: the internet is available as an inexpensive, well-targeted advertising platform that campaigns are using, especially to generate news stories which re-air the ad for free. The focus remains the same, however.
The grass-roots campaign has changed significantly, however. These changes were foreshadowed by the Clinton campaign’s tight integration, but have been taken to new levels recently. The Obama campaign exemplifies these changes: Beyond simple mobilization mailings, the Obama campaign tightly integrated grass-roots efforts to produce campaign output from regular citizens without requiring them to travel. Using technologies unavailable in 1992, the Obama campaign paired its many disparate databases, allowing supporters to make targeted phone calls to undecided voters using cell phones and information provided by the Obama campaign via the internet. Technology-savvy workers heavily promoted Obama in third-party areas such as Facebook, and once elected Obama modernized FDR’s fireside chats by posting videos to Youtube.
4. How did voting behavior in the 2008 presidential election confirm general historical patterns? Were there ways in which it varied from those patterns or called the patterns into question?
Voting behavior in the 2008 presidential election largely followed the historical trends, although it had some indicators of a generational shift toward the Democrats. There were some surprise victories for Obama in unusual demographics (the very rich, for instance), but these are largely explained by dissatisfaction with George W. Bush and a unified Republican government from 2004 on.
Barack Obama and the Democrats continued to win among all minorities. Blacks voted for Obama at record percentages. In a blow to Republicans, Latinos voted more Democratic than they did in 2004 (reversing a hard-fought battle by the Bush campaigns), but not at levels exceeding many earlier elections.
Voters identified as liberal or conservative at rates nearly the same as in 2004, though they moved about 2 points toward liberal and the utility of this measure is disputed. A higher proportion of Democrats and independents voted than in 2004, but this is typical for the winning party, since a large part of winning is simply generating a vote turnout.
The surprises (given that Obama won) were the 2:1 Obama:McCain ratio among voters aged 18-29 and the 39-point margin among first-time voters for Obama, which seems to indicate a generational shift toward the Democratic party. Time will tell if the Republicans can recover from this — if they can’t, it spells certain doom, since a party outnumbered 2:1 is no party at all in a 2-party system. I don’t think this is a likely outcome, however; the Republicans will almost certainly reorganize their priorities to attract younger voters and continue to exist, as the two major parties have done for the last 150 years.
5. Analyze the debate between Mayhew and the realignment theorists (including Campbell and Sundquist) over the utility of realignment as a concept. What are the strengths of each argument? Overall, which side has the strongest argument?
Realignment is an interesting concept, but Mayhew convincingly illustrates the flaws inherent to the current theoretical framework of realigning elections. Realignment theorists long fixated on specific elections as realigning elections without specifying why that election — rather than a prior or following one — indicated the realignment, despite the fact that changes in long-term voter preferences are inherently a long-term phenomenon.
Mayhew demonstrates conclusively that, when evaluating proposed measures of realignment, the conventional realigning elections do not rate significantly higher than the “average” election, and that other elections considered normal often rate higher. This evidence convinces me that any approach to realignment based on outlier realigning elections are flawed and their idea is useless.
However, that doesn’t mean that realigning as a concept has no value, merely that realigning should not be assigned concrete events; rather, it should be viewed as a continuously on-going process which political students (and actors) can study (and attempt to manipulate). There are demonstrable trends in voter preferences based on different criteria: the disintegration of the Democratic solid South, and the corresponding black voter change from Republican to Democrat, is perhaps the most famous. This change first manifested itself in the 1964 election, but it continued over several more.
Similarly, the 2008 election has been heralded as a possibly realigning election based on what is perceived as a huge win for Barack Obama and the Democratic party, particularly among juvenile and first-time voters. But I do not believe this is the case, rather, it is the first indicator of dissatisfaction with the Republican party that (if left unresolved) could produce a generational realignment, but will not necessarily do so. Thus I conclude that realignment is a useful concept, but it is not a discrete event and should not be studied as such.
6. Does the campaign finance system need to be fixed? If yes, what would you suggest?
The campaign finance system is a mess of conflicting priorities, but whether (and how) it needs fixing is a question of highly controversial competing ideologies. The primary ideological dichotomy is over the meaning of money? The first ideology is that campaign money is speech, and speech has first amendment protection, so obviously campaign-finance law (possibly with certain exclusions like forbidding foreign contributions) is unconstitutional. The second view is that money is not speech, so it can be regulated.
It’s not really that simple, though: we prohibit all kinds of speech that fall outside first-amendment protections. Child pornography and slander against private individuals are prohibited forms of speech that pass constitutional muster, because these forms of speech harm individuals and regulating them does not impede democracy. This hints at a more theoretically useful question: is regulating money likely to impede democracy or enhance it?
There is a strong argument that campaign finance laws enhance democracy. It prevents an oligarchy where the rich and powerful buy up government offices by brainwashing the masses; it provides a more even playing field so that good ideas can be said loud enough to be heard; it (nominally) means that voters will hear about each candidate in roughly equal proportion and so will vote based on their beliefs rather than the name they’ve heard most often.
Unfortunately, regulating campaign finance to achieve this particular end has proven difficult to the point of impossibility. You could argue that we should continue fighting the good fight in pursuit of this goal, but I must disagree. I find campaign finance laws to be constitutionally uneasy, even if not necessarily outlawed; I believe in a marketplace of ideas where the good ideas (and political figures) will attract attention (and therefore money); and I believe that meeting the goal of campaigning equality —without leaving loopholes so large they break the regulatory system — is impossible without an impermissible regulation of individual free speech protections.
Yes, the campaign finance system needs to be fixed. It should be dismantled to leave only the necessary protections against foreign influences on campaigning, and let Americans use their money how they like in promoting candidates and issues.
7. Is presidential primary front-loading a problem? If so, why? And can it be “solved”?
Presidential primary front-loading is a serious problem in our presidential selection system that should be rectified. Early selection of general election presidential candidates does not benefit the country, and it has many downsides.
Why doesn’t early selection produce any benefits? There is nothing inherently non-beneficial about it: early selection could allow voters more time to study the candidates and learn about their policy and leadership positions, thus producing a more informed vote. Unfortunately, it does not do so: an earlier start to general election campaigning simply produces more “horse-race” coverage by the news media and lets the candidates paint each other negatively for longer periods of time. Horse-race coverage does not advance the cause of democracy, and negative campaigning probably has a negative effect by reducing trust in government and the parties (what kind of organization elects such sleaze ball candidates for office?).
In opposition to the benefits we could have but do not, there are many disadvantages to front-loading. The first primaries and caucuses have a disproportionate impact on selection by pushing a few candidates to receive all the news coverage, giving them front-runner status. This discourages people in other states from voting for other candidates who may be more nationally popular. Front-loading also decreases the time given to party vetting of individuals and requires that candidates have a substantial campaign fund prior to the first nominating contest.
Luckily, front-loading can be solved. Doing so may be hard, but we have seen hope in the 2008 election cycle. The later Democratic primaries had a real impact on the outcome of the nomination, and the parties enforced their rules on how early states could hold their nominating contests. As a result of this election, we may see states more willing to go later in the nominating process based on the impact of those later states.
Even if the states do not willingly prevent front-loading, and the parties will not (since front-loading allows an earlier start to the general election campaign), the government could take a stronger role in preventing front-loading. For instance, campaign finance laws could be changed so that the general election laws must be followed after a candidate cannot lose, even if the convention is yet to come. This would encourage the parties to draw out their nominating contests so as to preserve the friendly primary finance laws.
Question 8: what was the most interesting thing you learned about presidential elections this semester? Elaborate.
I thought the most interesting thing I learned this semester was Judith Best’s arguments for the electoral college (and federalism generally) on the basis of national unity. I had previously thought such concepts were largely an inheritance from our past, perhaps better gotten rid of, rather than possessing real current value.