Our never-ending presidential campaign

I am old enough to remember when Presidential election campaigns started after Labor Day, and the Christmas shopping season started after Thanksgiving.  I get as tired of Presidential campaigns that start 18 months before the election as I do of Christmas shopping seasons that start around Halloween or sooner, but I don’t see what can be done about it.  Both politics and retailing are like an arms race.  If there is an advantage to getting a head start over your rivals, almost everyone will seek that advantage, and those who don’t will fall by the wayside.

Our system of selecting Presidents is directly counter to what the Founders intended.  They thought the office should seek the leader, not the candidate seek the office.  They would be horrified at the sacrifice of time, energy and dignity required of presidential candidates today.  They hoped to avoid a party system, in which members of each party sought to block the other party’s measures and support their own, regardless of merit.

When they wrote the Electoral College into the Constitution, they had in mind an alternate system in which citizens do not vote for candidates, but for electors.  The electors, presumably the leading citizens of the various parts of the United States, were supposed to meet, deliberate and choose as President the best-qualified person.

The only President ever chosen in the way the Founders intended was George Washington.  He did not campaign for office.   Washington was chosen because it was the consensus of the electors that he was the best person for the office.

That system quickly broke down.  In 1800, Federalist electors pledged to John Adams ran against Democratic-Republican electors pledge to Thomas Jefferson.   In the early days of the Republic, candidates were chosen by the congressional caucuses of the parties.  Caucuses were replaced in Andrew Jackson’s time by political party conventions, which were supposed to be more open to public participation.

In a way, the congressional caucuses and party conventions were a substitute for the Electoral College.  Leading political figures from various sections of the country came together and agreed on a candidate.  The public campaign did not begin until they made their choice.

In the 19th century and early 20th century, candidates maintained the convention that they did not seek the offices.  Generally the candidates stayed away from the conventions until a delegation came and notified them of their nominations.   They thought it undignified to actively campaign themselves.  Their supporters did most of the campaigning for them.

Presidential primaries were introduced during the Progressive Era around the turn of the last century, but they did not come to control the nominating process until 75 years later.  I remember how the 1956 Democratic presidential nomination went to Gov. Adlai Stevenson, even though Senator Estes Kefauver won a majority of the vote in primaries; leaders such as ex-President Truman dismissed the primaries as a “beauty contest.”  Senator John F. Kennedy’s victories in the 1960 Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries were important not because of the delegate votes he won, but because he showed party leaders that a Catholic could carry predominantly Protestant states.

Today both Democrats and Republicans have presidential primaries in all the states.  This is supposed to open up the process to public participation, but the unintended consequence is to create a need for the individual candidate to be able to raise money for the necessary advertising, publicity and campaign staff to get into the public eye.  The idea that the office should seek the candidate has been forgotten.  The political campaign is an ordeal that many qualified people would not want to go through.

In many ways the present system is worse than the old political machines.  Tammany Hall and Chicago’s Daley machine were corrupt, but at least they did things of tangible value for people in their patronage networks in return for their votes, which today’s media-based campaigners do not.

Sometimes I think we would be better off trying to go back to the original concept of the Electoral College.  Instead of voting for candidates directly, voters would vote for electors – one from each congressional district and two from each state – whose names would appear on the ballot without the names of a pledged candidate.  The electors would then meet and make their choice, which could be someone who had not actively put themself forward.

But as I think it over, I see that it wouldn’t work.  Powerful monied interests would know the sentiments of the individual electors, even if the average voters didn’t.  And the electors would wind up being as beholden to monied interests as candidates are today.

One advantage of the present presidential primary system is that it starts in small states—the Iowa caucuses, and then the New Hampshire primary.  Relative unknown candidates sometimes win in Iowa and New Hampshire, and this gives them the credibility to raise money.

In short, we have a badly flawed system, and all the past attempts to open it up have done nothing or made things worse.  I don’t have good ideas as to what to do to make things better.  Does anybody else?

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