Op-Ed: Nomination process still needs much work

A famous party leader from the 19th century, “Boss” Tweed, once said, “I do not care who does the electing, just so as I can do the nominating.” Boss Tweed knew that real power arose from controlling the nomination process. Because nominations matter so much, there’s been a quadrennial battle over how “best” to select presidential contenders.

Much of today’s controversy focuses on the “front loading” of the system. Front loading means that more states are holding their primaries or caucuses earlier in the year. Consider that in 1992; just two states selected delegates prior to March 1st. In 2008, over 30 states will chose delegates by February 5th.

States are moving their primaries earlier because they realize, like Boss Tweed, that is where power lies. Tennessee is part of this effort because we don’t want to be left on the sidelines.

Do these changes improve the system? Perhaps, but the real problem is that there really is no “best” way to choose nominees. The evaluation of any system rests heavily on whether you like or dislike the candidates that are nominated. Around the turn of the last century, party leaders like Boss Tweed selected the nominees behind closed doors. It wasn’t very democratic, yielding many complaints. Slowly we moved to a system that relied on direct primaries, giving average citizens more say in the process. Primaries were first introduced in 1912, but didn’t become dominant until 1972. This new system was more democratic, but it too came under fire.

This current rush to the front has reshaped the process yet again, giving critics grist for their mills. To be competitive, a candidate needs a huge war chest. The early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will set the table for “super duper” Tuesday on February 5th, when more than 20 states vote for their delegates to the National Convention. The dark horse does not seem to have a chance under this new arrangement. It used to be that a long shot could do well in a small state and parlay that into attention, votes and money. But that is no longer true.

So, is frontloading a good thing? If you want to give an underdog a chance, this is not your cup of tea. If you want to see a battle between the heavyweights, this system may be more to your liking. Those who favor Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton will be more supportive of the system than those who favor Mike Huckabee or Joe Biden. Personally, I’m not bothered by frontloading. The ability to raise lots of money and build strong organizations in so many states at once may tap the kinds of skills needed to be a successful president. But reasonable people can disagree about that judgment.

I’m confident of one thing, regardless of what happens, the complaints will continue. There are lots of people who want to be president, but only one will win. That means there will be many disappointed contenders who believe a different system would have landed them in the White House. And all party leaders know full well that Boss Tweed was right about the importance of controlling nominations and they too will push for new rules with that goal in mind.

Perhaps all these pressures to change the system are not so bad, since there really is no “best” system for nominating presidents. Rather, it is and will continue to be a work in progress.

John G. Geer is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University. This article was originally published in The Tennessean Oct. 4, 2007.

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