Apologies for missing this week's "Webfoot Wednesday" posting. I've been catching up following some extra lectures at the university where I work (a very welcome honor, but some additional work). The events of this week's caucuses and the seemingly unending fracas in the GOP regarding the party's proper direction have had me thinking about the way in which we have chosen presidents throughout American history and the implications of our most recent model.
Many citizens no longer realize that until the 1960s, the vast majority of states did not proffer presidential primaries. While local or state-level primaries were a more common feature, and a few states ranging from New Hampshire to Oregon did offer them at the presidential level, most delegate support was garnered via more private deliberations between state party officials and the candidates' organizations. A colleague in the field by the name of Michael Bowen has recently published a fascinating book on the development of ideology as a significant factor in presidential nominee selection titled The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party -- I highly recommend it.
The most significant factor for many party officials -- who were concerned above all with patronage -- was that a nominee be "electable." This required him (since at this point it always was a him) to be widely appealing. Primaries, however, have come to emphasize a different set of qualifications. Party primaries bring together the most motivated of partisan voters -- this is their opportunity to influence the nomination process and they take this task seriously. Partisan voters tend to privilege ideology more highly among their criteria for candidate selection. This makes them less concerned with overall electability; they want to see someone of an amenable mindset as nominee, and often believe strongly enough in this ideological worldview to deem it acceptable by the rest of the nation. The overall result is a system that favors more ideologically polarized candidacies.
We can see the influence of this system in the news today. Mitt Romney continues to be viewed as the most widely "acceptable" candidate within the GOP field by many opinion leaders. Voters in primaries and caucuses (another example to exert direct pressure), however, have divergent opinions. It is safe to assume that in a pre-1960s electoral system, Romney would become the Republican nominee, end of story. While that continues to seem the most likely outcome in 2012, however, the selection process remains far more contingent.
Is this is a good thing or a bad thing? Well, the contemporary process does provide more opportunities for citizens to exert influence. This could be regarded as a positive thing. It could be argued that we enjoy a more distinct set of choices come fall. On the other hand, when one party's race is highly contested, the ongoing fight provides a hefty supply of general-election ammunition for the other side. One has to assume someone in President Obama's reelection campaign is gleefully recording each and every attack proffered by the likes of Gingrich, Santorum and Paul. As well, more ideological polarity renders consensus politics far less feasible and helps contribute to the partisan deadlock in which we find ourselves in Washington, D.C. One's final verdict in many cases depends upon the relative importance one assigns to each of these goals. Understanding how recent developments have shifted the contours of politics, however, at least renders us capable of recognizing why the political landscape looks so different today than it did in 1950.