In 1952 Sen. Estes Kefauver defeated President Harry Truman in the New Hampshire primary with the momentous result that Truman announced he would not seek re-election. In that same primary, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower defeated Ohio Sen. Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft, grandee of congressional insiders. If the plans of party leaders hadn’t been upset by a direct vote of the people of one small state in 1952, the contest for president would probably have been between Taft and Truman. The American people liked Ike, but they likely would never have had the chance to elect him if not for the New Hampshire primary.
For most of U.S. history, the process of nominating presidents was dominated by a few men hammering out deals in the smoke-filled rooms of the great national conventions. Over the past few decades, the rise of presidential primaries has largely broken the power of the bosses. People are more empowered now, but has the system kept pace with their empowerment?
Most states now hold presidential primary elections, but tiny, unrepresentative and atypical, New Hampshire continues to have the nation’s first one, and in the tradition of 1952, it continues to profoundly influence our presidential selection process. In fact, with only two exceptions in the last 56 years, the winner of the presidency has carried the first primary in New Hampshire.
It is no wonder then that other states, mostly larger and arguably more representative of the nation, have been busily moving up the dates of their primary elections. The result is that by Feb. 5, a majority of states will have held primary elections or caucuses. While Montana Democrats are still going to wait until the bitter end of the primary season in June to select their convention delegates, Montana Republicans will choose theirs in caucuses on Feb. 5. Both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president are likely to be known by Feb. 6, a full nine months before the general election. Instead of a deliberate process in which the ideas of candidates can be tested state by state, a stampede will begin on Jan. 3 in Iowa, and thunder to a chaotic climax on Feb. 5.
This aspect of our democracy couldn’t be much worse. It favors glib, well-known, well-financed candidates. It assures that thoughtful ideas are trampled in the din of the stampede.
Traditionally, states determine their own election laws, so arriving at a coherent system of nominating presidential candidates won’t be easy, but it is past time for all of us to begin talking about it.
The National Association of Secretaries of State has a proposal that would divide the country into Western, Midwestern, Southern and Northeastern regions. The regions would vote on a sequential basis, the first one in February, the second in March, the third in April, and the last in May. The order in which the regions vote would alternate every four years with each presidential election cycle. Some form of rotating regional primaries deserves careful thought, especially if geographically meaningful regions like New England or the Rocky Mountain West were represented.
Another proposal worthy of consideration would also designate four groups of states, but instead of regions, the groupings would be based on state populations, with the 12 smallest states (including Montana and our surrounding neighbors) always voting in February, then in ascending order of population, culminating with the 13 most populous states voting in May. The small states would provide an opportunity for less well-known candidates. Those successful in the smaller states in the beginning of the process might ultimately prevail in the big states at the end.
Our democracy also has room for improvement in the general election phase. Our unique and arcane electoral college makes candidates focus on winning majorities in swing states rather than on winning a majority of the votes of the people. Four times in U.S. history, most recently in the election of 2000, candidates with the most popular votes have lost to candidates with the most electoral votes. The Electoral College is controversial, and perhaps deserves to be, but it would take a constitutional amendment to change or do away with it. Small states like Montana, which are advantaged by the Electoral College, should be wary of a constitutional amendment.
Nothing in the Constitution, however, requires all of a state’s electoral votes to be cast for the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state. In fact, Maine and Nebraska now allow their electoral votes to be determined proportionately or by congressional district, reflecting much more accurately the choices of the people in these states. Californians have been debating whether or not to abolish the winner-take-all allocation of that state’s mammoth electoral vote. If adopted by other states, a proportional system would retain the advantage that the Electoral College gives to small population states, but would be far more representative of the choices of the people in states of all sizes and in the whole nation.
We need to reform both our presidential nomination process and our presidential election process. Our badly flawed democratic system is still better than any non-democratic alternative. But we can and should make it better.
Bob Brown and Daniel Kemmis are Senior Fellows at The University of Montana’s O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Mr. Brown is a former Republican Secretary of State and President of the Montana Senate. Mr. Kemmis is a former Democratic Mayor of Missoula and Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives.
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