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Electing the President: Caucuses and Primaries

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  • Background

    Every four years the United States elects a president. In the modern era the two main parties (Democrats and Republicans) select their nominees at caucuses and primaries that take place during the first six months of the year. Candidates compete for delegates to the national conventions, which formally select a nominee during the summer.

    Candidates compete for delegates in caucuses and primaries. At a caucus voters meet in neighborhood gathering places to discuss the election and then hold a vote. In primaries voters simply cast a ballot. In primary states politicking at the polls is actually illegal. By custom Iowa holds the first caucus and New Hampshire holds the first primary. Both states say that it's useful to the country for candidates to compete in their small states first. They argue that this system gives less-well known candidates a chance to compete since costs are relatively low. Most candidates use the elections in these two states to hone their message and engage in retail politics: meeting voters one on one. Critics argue that the states are unrepresentative of the country as a whole. After Iowa and New Hampshire, it's mostly a free-for-all, with states vying to hold their elections according to a schedule set by state and national party leaders. On Super Tuesday -- which is usually held in February or early March -- more states hold elections than on any other date. Super Tuesday often settles the race in both parties.

    Because modern campaigns cost millions of dollars -- in 2012 Barack Obama's campaign is expected to spend more than a billion dollars -- most candidates run out of money quickly and drop out early unless they are on a winning streak. Winners attract donors, who want to know that their money isn't going for a lost cause.

    Unlike the general election, the winner-take-all principle does not hold during the primary season. Candidates win delegates in proportion to their totals on election night, though Republicans shift to a winner-take-all approach in contests that take place starting in April (Florida, which held its primary at the end of January, is the sole winner-take-all primary that occurs before April). The system is designed to give losing candidates an incentive to remain in the race in hope of breaking out later on.

    What the Left Says

    Liberals bemoan the role of money in elections and insist the current system is basically corrupt. They argue that presidential contests have become so expensive that they favor either rich candidates or candidates who sell out to groups that possess the ability to generate large contributions. The birth of social media has changed the dynamic of elections somewhat, giving candidates the chance to raise millions in small donations from large numbers of ordinary voters. But most campaigns still rely heavily on large donations. While donations to a candidate's campaign are limited by law, there are many ways around the restrictions. Contributions can be bundled together from the employees of a corporation or labor union, giving those entities more leverage over a campaign than individual voters who make small contributions. And nothing prevents a wealthy individual from spending millions of dollars to help elect a candidate as long as they do not coordinate their activities with the candidate's campaign. Similarly, Super PACs (political action committees) are allowed to spend as much as they want on a candidate's behalf as long as they too do not coordinate with the campaign they are benefiting. But liberals say it's easy to get around the restriction. Nothing stops a candidate from announcing publicly how these Super PACs could be helpful.

    What the Right Says

    Conservatives say it's a fool's errand to try to place limits on money in politics. While some conservatives like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) from time to time have supported campaign finance reform, most disparage restrictions as an impairment of political freedom. They argue that donors should be able to give as much money as they wish as long as the identity of the donors is disclosed. When liberals cry that corporations are influencing the political process, conservatives retort that labor unions also have an outsized impact. Conservatives decry the use of labor dues on behalf of political candidates the union supports given that union members are usually not given an opportunity to say who should receive support and who shouldn't. Conservatives like columnist George Will argue that liberals are misguided in thinking that there's an excess of money in politics anyway. As Will likes to joke, we spend more on potato chips every year ($7 billion) than we do on elections.

    Historical Background

    What set the United States apart from the very beginning was the commitment of the country to elections. In the early years of the Revolution before the ratification of the Constitution the suffrage was restricted to white males with property. By the time George Washington became president property qualifications had been abolished in most states, though some still restricted voting to taxpayers. It's estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of adult white males could vote. Nowhere else in the world did so many have voting rights so early on.

    The Founding Fathers' embrace of the principle of self-government was married to a deep suspicion of popular opinion. To curb the possibility that demagogues might whip voters up into a frenzy from time to time, the Founders limited direct popular control of the federal government to one half of one branch: the House of Representatives. The Senate was elected by the state legislatures. The President was elected by the Electoral College. The Supreme Court was appointed by the President with the confirmation of the Senate. Later amendments to the Constitution eased some of these restrictions. By the twentieth century the Electoral College had become a nearly worthless relic and senators were elected directly by the people.

    In the early years of the Republic elites (primarily concentrated in New York and Virginia) held sway over the government. Not until the election of Andrew Jackson did political parties in the modern sense develop. But once they did the elites learned that they had to share power with ordinary people, who now could express their will at the ballot box through organized parties. The invention of the party system is one of America's chief political innovations. From the start the parties were dominated by bosses, which somewhat diminishes the halo that hovers over our political history. They remained a keystone in the American political system until the 1960s, when television gave American voters the opportunity to see politics up close and decide for themselves which candidates they wanted to support. Once the candidates figured out that they could appeal to the people over the heads of the bosses through television, the days of the bosses were numbered.

    The first experiment with primaries took place early in the twentieth century in connection with the birth of the Progressive movement. But within a few years party bosses beat back the attempt to give voters direct control over the nominating process. They retained primary control through 1968, when the Democratic Convention under their control gave the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, even though he hadn't won a single primary. Angered by this turn of events reformers revamped the system, establishing the now-familiar process in place today.

    Topics for Discussion

  • Does the system produce good candidates?
  • Does money play too big a role in the selection of winning candidates?
  • Should Iowa and New Hampshire continue to hold the first contests?
  • What is Historical Thinking?