The 2016 presidential candidates arguably represent the most unpopular choices in recent history. This, after a primary season of broad choice and heavy voter turnout. How is it that when a larger proportion of voters participates in the selection of candidates, the result is an unappetizing choice in the general election?
To understand this paradox requires looking back at the history of presidential nominations. In that the Constitution provides no guidelines for the nomination of presidential candidates, political parties formed in part to fill the void. Early in the republic, parties organized to nominate candidates for president, Congress and state offices. The method initially employed was informal, consisting of a small group, caucus, of like-minded officeholders and activists who met to fill electoral slates and determine party positions. This process was later broadened to include conventions and primary elections to accommodate the criticism that nominations, like elections, must be open to the more citizens. All this sounds very healthy, but in 2016 this broad-based process has resulted in an unpopular choice set. How did it happen?
The answer lies in examining the role of political parties in our democracy. American parties are loose aggregations of officeholders, officials and activists who recruit, slate, fund and work for the election of their candidates. Motivations for this partisan activity range from self interest like a job to altruistic goals such as a cleaner environment. However, most party activists appreciate that if they do not win an election, no one’s goals are fulfilled, hence there is a highly exaggerated emphasis upon winning.
The movement from caucus to convention to primaries, while opening up the nomination process, diminishes the role of the political party. Just as party activists are focused upon winning, the primary voter is often motivated by policy concerns and selects the candidate who comes closest to the issue positions he or she favors. But here’s the rub: Winning elections requires securing a majority of votes, so party officials and party voters move to the center in order to attract the additional votes needed to win, but most primary voters do not.
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To appreciate the problem of a nomination process dominated by primaries requires examining the predominant primary voter. Far fewer individuals vote in the primaries than are registered in a particular party or vote for that party in the general election. Primary voters are generally intensely issue or candidate motivated; they vote for the candidate who is likely to pursue their policy objectives.
The winner of a series of state presidential primary elections is that candidate who approximates the policy preferences of serial primary election participants. Thus, the paradox: The more open the nomination process, the more likely that the outcome will be unappealing to weak partisans and independents. As a result, parties will field candidates popular to a narrow base but unpopular to the majority outside that base.
The solution is in meaningfully reincorporating the party regulars into the nomination through party-selected super delegates and through giving political parties the same prerogatives in raising campaign money currently enjoyed by PACs. Over time the result will be a nomination process that produces candidates closer to where most Americans are, the middle.
David G. Baker, Ph.D, of Cary is a retired professor of political science at Kent State University.