No other democracy in the world has anything even vaguely resembling the presidential selection process that the United States has developed over the last four decades.
Lucky for them, because American democracy’s existing presidential selection process is a civic and moral train wreck.
As of this writing, with a Democratic incumbent cruising to a second nomination, we are four states into the 2012 Republican presidential selection season. Per usual, the season started in earnest with the Iowa caucuses. In Iowa, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney beat Ron Paul but lost to Ron Donatucci.
You are probably wondering: Ron Paul is the libertarian congressman from Texas, but who is Ron Donatucci?
Donatucci is Philadelphia’s Register of Wills. In 2011, he was elected to that office with 121,374 votes. In the 2011 Iowa caucuses, the six Republican presidential contenders—Santorum, Romney and Paul, plus Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann—received a combined total of 114,446 votes.
Next up, as always, was New Hampshire. There Romney led the pack with 95,669 votes. If you add that to the nearly 30,000 votes Romney got in Iowa, the Republican presidential frontrunner would outpoll Donatucci, but he would still be in a virtual dead heat with Christine Solomon. She holds the office of Judge of the Philadelphia Traffic Court. In 2011 she won that post with 125,434 votes.
So we start our presidential selection sweepstakes by expending ungodly amounts of money and media time on two small-state contests that we know will be won with vote totals that could not even get you elected to down-ballot offices in any big city.
Then we move on to the Nevada caucuses (prior to the Nevada primary) and, of course, South Carolina, a mid-sized state with a primary electorate that is not exactly a demographic and ideological cross-section of the country. Though the television talking heads feign suspense, in South Carolina the most conservative major candidate unfailingly wins (as Gingrich did this year) or comes in a close second (as Mike Huckabee did behind John McCain in 2008).
Finally, it’s four down and only 46 more to go, with Florida, a big state that tests each candidate’s presidential timber in two ways. First, does he or she have what it takes to spend—or to have ostensibly independent “super PACs” spend—untold millions of dollars on hyper-negative ads that tear remaining opponents to pieces? (And here, I mean literally untold, since the super PACs need not report their sources until much later.) And second, can he or she pander shamelessly to Floridians age 65 and older?
Thereafter, the bizarre process by which we pick people to compete for the presidency only goes on longer, gets ever more expensive, becomes ever more negative and fosters ever deeper political polarization.
Our present-day presidential selection process reflects the perverse and unintended byproducts of successive attempts to reform and improve it. That began with well-meaning changes in each party’s rules that prevented any candidate from doing what, for example, Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey did in 1968, namely, win a party’s presidential nomination without running in and winning a single presidential primary. In both parties, the party bosses exited, and the pollsters and the campaign consultants and hyper-ideological activists entered. The process pushed the Republicans ever farther to the right and the Democratic Party ever farther to the left.
I see no solution, but I would favor having a single “Super-Super Tuesday” national primary that permits equal participation by all states and presents a fair compromise with the increased number of delegates that larger states send to the national conventions, much like the compromises during the original constitutional convention. Among other arguable drawbacks, that one-day drama would favor candidates with high name recognition and put at a disadvantage lesser-known candidates within each party. But it would, I believe, be better than the present system, and I have yet to hear any better ideas.