As Americans begin contemplating the 2024 election, a number of polls have revealed that significant majorities do not want to see either Donald Trump or Joe Biden as the parties’ nominees. By objective standards, both men seem to be patently unfit for the office. Biden is mentally and physically infirm; increasingly ensnared in allegations of corruption; and widely portrayed as a demagogic faux moderate who has given the country the worst inflation in thirty years and a disastrous defeat in Afghanistan. Trump is narcissistic; ensnared in multiple criminal and civil proceedings; and seen by many as a demagogic loose cannon who considers loyalty to himself the primary political virtue and who led the country to the edge of a constitutional crisis in pursuit of a second term he failed to win at the ballot box. Yet, at this moment, a Biden–Trump rematch appears to be the most likely election scenario.
With this picture in mind, some ask what is wrong with American politics, and it is not a bad question. Extreme polarization, negative partisanship, or even the decay of civic virtue are each possible answers. A more immediate question, though, is what is wrong with our process for nominating presidential candidates?
How Did We Get Here?
A brief review of how we got here is in order. When parties first developed, their congressional members would meet and designate their presidential and vice presidential nominees. This “congressional caucus” guaranteed that the nominees would be people known and supported by other national officeholders, which is in many respects a benefit. But the system threatened separation of powers and was too closed and top-down for it to survive in the increasingly democratic America of the early 1800s. After the system imploded in 1824, leading to a multicandidate race and the controversial election of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson built a new system that quickly came to dominate presidential party politics: the national convention.
Of course, national conventions are still with us, but they operate in a very different way and perform very different functions today. From 1832 through 1908, delegates were elected to the national convention by the parties’ state and local assemblies. State and local party leaders were the key actors, and delegates were free agents, using their judgment to support first one and then another of a shifting list of potential nominees, who had generally not run open campaigns prior to the convention. Conventions usually took more than one ballot to select a winner, and the winner was often a surprise choice, unpredicted by insiders or observers. This system was much more representative and decentralized than the congressional caucus, but some critics complained that the party leaders who ultimately made the pick were both too powerful and too concerned with electability at the expense of competence or integrity.
Around 1900, reformers in the progressive movement demanded a change. In their view, corrupt parties should be supplanted by conscientious voters who would bypass the parties by voting directly for nominees, or perhaps for delegates to the convention, in what were then called direct primaries (today we simply call them primaries). While a flurry of states adopted presidential primaries in 1912, most states continued using more traditional methods of delegate selection.
This “mixed system” consisted of about one-third of states selecting about 40 percent of delegates using primaries, while the other two-thirds of states did not. In order to be competitive in primaries, many candidates began openly running campaigns months before the summer conventions. Voters could have a direct impact on the outcome. Nevertheless, party leaders still held the balance of power. Candidates like Adlai Stevenson in 1952 could still win the nomination without entering any primaries; contestants like Estes Kefauver could run in (and win) almost every primary and still be rejected by the convention. Candidates entered primaries selectively to demonstrate electability, as when John F. Kennedy proved he could win evangelical states such as West Virginia in the state’s 1960 primary. For Kennedy, the real prize was not West Virginia’s delegates but the much larger number of delegates controlled by bosses such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
The Modern System
When Hubert H. Humphrey was nominated by the 1968 Democratic national convention despite not having competed in the primaries, his opponent Eugene McCarthy’s supporters were enraged. To mollify them, Humphrey agreed to create a commission (which became known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission) to examine the nominating rules.
Pro-reform forces quickly gained the upper hand, and pushed through a number of changes based on the mantra of “full, meaningful, and timely participation.” The ability of state and local parties to control their caucuses and conventions was curtailed, and delegates were more tightly bound to the candidates than to the party. Although the reforms did not require it, the number of states holding primaries exploded. Within a few years, nominating decisions were made earlier on in the process, and the national convention was no longer a venue for actual decision-making. The 1976 Republican national convention was the last when the winner was not already known well before the convention began.
In the contemporary system, the evolution from a process controlled by “party in government” to “party organization” to “party in the electorate” was complete. Another way of putting this was that the system transitioned from a representative one to a democratic, even plebiscitary, one. The Founders’ insight that democracy could destroy itself if not balanced by institutional mechanisms that mediated public opinion and encouraged deliberation was discarded.
This set of developments led over time to another unintended consequence, the dramatic altering of the delegate selection calendar. In 1968, most delegates were selected relatively late in the primary season. By 1988, most were selected in the first half of the calendar. Although the degree of “front-loading” has fluctuated since then, the nomination calendar has never again been back-loaded as it was in 1968 and before. A vicious circle is at work. Early nominating decisions lead more states to schedule their primaries early, and the front-loading that results then leads to earlier nominating decisions.
Some scholars have observed that party leaders, though deprived of formal control over the process, have found informal ways to keep a hold over the nomination. And it is true that most nominees in recent times, whether George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney or John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden, are probably not very different from the candidates who would have been nominated in the mixed system or other systems with greater formal party control.
At the same time, though, the dynamic has changed. Even those establishment candidates have to talk and act differently than candidates in an earlier era. (Think of Mitt Romney’s uncharacteristic boast of being “severely conservative,” made solely to appeal to primary voters who would decide the contest.) And candidates have arisen from the outside—sometimes the radical outside—who made a serious run, or even won the nomination, who would have been unthinkable before 1972.
Trump and Biden
At the top of that list, of course, is Donald J. Trump. Trump was the only person ever to be elected president of the United States with neither political nor military experience of any kind. His campaign would have been a non-starter in the congressional caucus or the convention system, and nearly as impossible in the mixed system, where the only analogue is Wendell Willkie, a Democrat-turned-Republican utility executive who won the 1940 GOP nod. But Willkie was backed by the Republican Eastern Establishment—the same establishment that would successfully push the nominations of Governor Thomas Dewey of New York in 1944 and 1948 and then Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.
Trump had no such support. He lacked endorsements or an electoral base beyond what he could conjure up with the force of his personality and rhetoric. It is not, as often supposed, the case that primaries heighten the influence of ideological extremists; ideological movements typically perform better in caucuses than in primaries. Barry Goldwater won the 1964 Republican nomination before the reforms; George McGovern won the Democratic nomination in an only partly reformed system and did best in caucuses and old unreformed primaries. Rather, the modern system has given unprecedented access to unconnected personalistic outsiders, starting with George Wallace and Jimmy Carter. Trump was the most unconnected of the unconnected.
If Trump is a textbook example of the pathologies of the modern nominating system, Biden presents a more complicated case. It is tempting to see his 2020 nomination as a throwback to an earlier era. After Biden failed badly in the first three contests of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Democrats rather mysteriously cleared the field to give him, the establishment choice, a clear shot at socialist Bernie Sanders. Biden was the establishment choice because he seemed to be the candidate most likely to defeat Trump. Once he won in South Carolina, Biden’s momentum was unstoppable. Though the mechanism was different, the result was something one might expect in the convention system—the victory of an unexciting but broadly acceptable nominee who maximizes the party’s chance of winning the general election. However, at the end of the day, whatever the machinations and undulations, Democratic primary voters in 2020 had the power to determine the outcome as a direct result of the modern nominating system, and they used it to nominate Biden rather than any number of other plausible candidates not named Sanders.
The mixed system might also have nominated Biden, but the back-loading of delegate selection and the relatively low costs of a system centered on caucuses rather than primaries might have drawn a new candidate into the race after Biden demonstrated weakness in the first contests. The current system, heavily front-loaded and costly due to the predominance of primaries, left no opening for a 1968 Robert F. Kennedy-style late entrant. Now the same logic works against any challenger. Doing Biden’s bidding, the Democratic National Committee has tried to arrange the calendar so his South Carolina stronghold votes first, hoping that front-loading will carry him the rest of the way.
If Biden is renominated despite his growing disabilities, as seems most likely at this writing, the picture will be clarified. If the party does not have the power to avert the nomination of a candidate who is on a fast track to disaster, whether it is Joe Biden or Donald Trump, we will know that the modern nominating system is alive and well. Even if Biden or Trump is ultimately shunted aside by his party, it will be in spite of the character of the nominating system, not because any of its features actually facilitate such an outcome.
No Way Out?
If most Americans are unhappy with the likely presidential choice—that is to say, with the last two presidents—one might ask whether there is any way out in the future. Here one has to disaggregate the flaws of the system.
One flaw is the tendency toward front-loading. Modest steps can be and have been taken to address this, and have even borne some fruit in recent years. Both parties have adopted rules to limit front-loading, but the most effective strike against it has been the natural consequence of occasional presidential contests that remain competitive deep into the primary season, such as the Obama vs. Clinton (2008), Clinton vs. Sanders (2016), and Trump vs. everybody (2016) races, which all went into May or June before resolving. In reaction to these delayed decisions, some states actually moved their primaries back in the calendar.
While each contest was unique, the rise of 527s and SuperPACS, able to receive unlimited contributions and make unlimited independent expenditures, has provided a lifeline for candidates who would have left the race earlier if forced to rely only on small donors as envisioned in the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments.
The other flaw, of hyper-democratization, is much harder to address. To shift back to a more representative and less plebiscitary system—for example, to return to unpledged delegates who use their own judgement—would fly in the face of the dominant ethos. If anything, the democratic impulse has grown stronger. In 2016, when some Republicans suggested that delegates be freed from their pledges to reject Trump at the convention, a firestorm erupted even though Trump had won only 38 percent of the primary vote during the competitive period of the primaries (through May 3). In 2020, all but three Democratic states held a primary rather than caucuses. Democratic party superdelegates, once seen as a means of injecting mature deliberation by officeholders, have been neutered. To ask voters to put more power in representative institutions will require a long-term campaign of patient explanation and persuasion that no one in the political game has an incentive to conduct.
This means that for the foreseeable future, there will be no institutional barrier to demagoguery, viciousness, or incompetence to be found within the nominating processes. The only barrier will be the voters themselves. Perhaps, despite the early indications, they will have better luck in 2024 than they did in 2020.