Robert F. Jakubowicz: Primary-election system a muddled failure
PITTSFIELD >> Most American voters, as well as the candidates, are not happy with the state primary election-driven presidential nominating process. The media relish all the foofaraw connected with the process as great material for stories, editorials, op-ed columns, and advertising buys.
Right-wing critics demand that the nation go back to the process that the Founding Fathers established in the Constitution. But that is the problem. There is no such nominating process mentioned in that document. The Constitution simply created an electoral college system for state electors to choose a president. There is no provision for a process to nominate the presidential candidates for whom the electors were to vote.
George Washington was expected to be the first president. He simply and literally stood for election to that office without any primary election contest or campaigning. He was also expected by many to serve for life as president. But during his administration and in anticipation of the election of his successor, groups of interested individuals formed political factions, the early forerunners of our political parties, to pick their choice for president. This resulted in the intervention of political parties to add a nominating process for presidential candidates not written in the Constitution.
Political party presidential nominating conventions were created. State legislatures, which are empowered by the Constitution to pass laws for choosing presidential electors, enacted state laws to supply the details of how these conventions worked. Two political parties emerged with strong leadership to run this nominating process.
State party bosses, who controlled their state party delegates to these conventions attended them to bargain for political favors in exchange for the votes of the delegates under their control. Eventually progressive groups began clamoring for a change in this process. This led to state primary elections to take away the power of political bosses under the convention system.
At first, the presidential nominating state primaries were essentially contests to show the voters just how popular and electable wannabe presidential candidates were. Former President Jack Kennedy ran in some of these early primaries for the purpose of showing voters and political leaders that he could be elected president.
Eventually after the bad publicity from the 1972 Democratic presidential election in Chicago involving the candidacy of George McGovern, the nominating process was changed again, this time to make convention delegate votes mandatory for the winner of the state primary. This was to finally rid the process of the bad influence of party bosses.
This is another unwritten change to the constitutional process of electing a president. It is essentially the system we have today.
This removal of power from political party bosses to run presidential nominating conventions has led to a process open to anyone with the money and cheek, like a Donald Trump, to run for president. Under the old system, at least the party bosses were able to exercise some discipline over party candidates by picking them and supplying campaign funds and campaign workers. There is no such party discipline today.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, does not even try to deal with the likes of Trump with his bad behavior, insults, picking fights with other party presidential hopefuls and wacky promises from the great Mexican wall to ousting millions of illegal immigrants, to making America great again — all without mentioning any details on how he is going to do this.
The current nominating process is a free-for-all for any individual who has the finances and chutzpa to enter it. On the Democratic party side, President Obama, by virtue of holding his office, is now the titular head of the Democrats, and as many recent presidents on both sides, he is staying out of the nominating process, which also allows for a free-for-all opportunity for wannabe successor nominees for the office.
Good idea gone bad
The basic purpose of a system of primary elections was to allow party voters to select the party presidential nominee, rather than political bosses. This was a good idea, but the chronic low turnout of voters, especially in primary elections has allowed a rather small number of voters — like fringe right-wing groups with unfounded and downright nutty conspiracy theories, such as the orchestration of the Newtown, Connecticut school mass murder by the government in an effort to take away guns from the people — to join together and galvanize into a bloc of votes to take over the GOP primary elections and force party candidates to push the various agendas of these groups.
America has elected good and bad presidents under this jerry-rigged primary election system. So far, on balance, we have been lucky to have had good presidents at important times. It is in need of a change. The solution is easy, but hard to accomplish. We need to attract good candidates in each party and we need a voter turnout in primary and general elections that is representative of a majority of voters.
The Founders left this to future generations and we have not been able to do this successfully.