Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the system of choosing presidential candidates.

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Sophie Pearce 13A                                                                January 2003

“Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the system of choosing presidential candidates.”

It seems reasonable to conjecture that the Achilles' heel of the modern presidency is one of recruitment. The long-winded delegate nomination process could in theory be replaced by a daylong direct election of presidential candidates. Instead, tradition dictates that the presidential race is drawn out quadrennially over the pre-primary, primary, Party Convention and campaign seasons. All four phases influence the outcome of candidate selection and much also depends on campaign finance, the role of the media and the nominees themselves.

Although the process is considered a “complex, drawn-out affair” in the eyes of observers (Janda and Al, 1994 p191), the system ensures the person chosen will become an established national public figure by the November Presidential election. The Pre-primary stage, which commences some two years prior, allows tentative feelers to be put out to test potential support. Currently we can see the Democrats testing the water with possible candidates such as John Edwards, John.F.Kerry and Joe Lieberman, and already the press are on their cases surmising who will be the front runner. This time, although coined the “Invisible” primary, is important as whom ever the press decide to back will influentially determine who the public will vote for in the primary season. Additionally, it is now when contenders will make the ‘rule of thumb’ calculation to raise at least $20 million to finance a viable campaign.

Before assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Primary system, which operates in 38 out of the 50 states, it is important to consider the Caucus system that it replaced, a system that still operates in 12 states today. In Caucuses, the power to select delegates, who are sent to nominate presidential candidates at the National Party Convention, rests with Party activists who meet first at a local, then county and finally at a state level to make their choices.  The caucus system propounds the strength of the Party elite who have an overriding influence as to who is chosen. As Ragsdale observed (1993, p.95), the system tended to be dominated and controlled by party bosses, as "deals were cut in smoke-filled rooms,” rather than by ordinary rank-and-file members. This was far from democratic, and since the controversy surrounding Humphrey’s nomination for the Democratic Party in 1968, the McGovern-Fraser Commission established reforms which saw the advent of the ‘Media Primary.’ Since 1972, this procedure has become the system with gravitas: 77% of the votes cast by Republican delegates in 1988 came from those selected by primaries. These state-wide intra-party elections mean that any supporters can vote for a nominee to send to the National Convention and although these elected delegates still formally select the presidential candidate, it is rarely more than a ratification of the preferences expressed by ordinary voters. This encouraged a higher level of political participation, as voters could feel a part of the decision making process. Some primaries, such as Michigan State, saw a significantly increased turnout in 2000 compared to 1996. Primaries however, do not ensure an electoral mandate; of those eligible to vote, only 1 in 5 turn out, suggesting an element of voter fatigue and disenchantment at the same time as undermining the legitimacy of the process.

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Many commentators, and indeed Party Leaders, have regarded this development as detrimental to the functioning of the political system. Candidates can essentially by-pass the party leadership by appealing directly to grass-roots party membership and demonstrate his or her popularity at primaries. This had led to the growth of ‘candidate parties’ and the decline of national parties. For example Ronald Reagan, like both McGovern and Carter, built his own organisation, which used the primary system to circumvent traditional party power brokers; thus candidates are less beholden to Party “fat-cats.” This weakening of ties between the Party and a presidential candidate ...

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