It is a process that takes forever.  It is the longest executive leadership selection procedure in the world.  That’s America’s method of presidential nominations.

Having taught in the universities of other democratic nations, I can report that my students were both mystified and repelled by the lengthy, quirky and very expensive way we select our presidential nominees.

Here’s how I explained it to them.  The process is the product of federalism and, well random chance.  It’s federal in that it is a competition within each state.  The nomination process is the outcome of more than fifty separate candidate competitions — in each state plus also in a few U.S. territories and Puerto Rico.  So the fifty state Republican parties and fifty state Democratic parties each hold their own contests.

This takes months – starting in 2016 on February 1 in Iowa and concluding with several primaries in June.  It also takes hundreds of millions of dollars to conduct a winning nomination campaign.

Three Problems

The first problem with presidential nominations is that the process evolved at random.  That evolution has to do with the “important” states in the process.  The early states have great power to “cull the field” because early failure dries up campaign funds and candidates drop out.

Iowa, a state with a caucus/convention process, scheduled their 1972 caucuses early in the year due to hotel availability problems for their state convention later that year.  The caucuses happen first in this system, then county conventions, congressional district conventions and the state convention.  The state’s national convention delegates aren’t selected until the congressional district and state conventions held months after the caucuses.

The campaign of George McGovern for the Democratic nomination that year seized on the early Iowa caucuses as a way to generate early momentum in the process.  Though McGovern finished second to “frontrunner” Ed Muskie, the Iowa caucuses boosted McGovern, who eventually won the nomination.


George McGovern during the 1972 campaign

Jimmy Carter, an obscure former Governor of Georgia, camped out in Iowa in 1976 and won the caucuses and eventually the Democratic nomination.  So, by chance, Iowa became the “first test” and helped to determine which candidates had a future and which did not.  Canny Iowans have insisted ever since on remaining first in the nomination process.

JImmy Carter

Jimmy Carter as a candidate in 1976

The New Hampshire primary traditionally has been “first in the nation” shortly after Iowa.  The two major parties have also passed party rules allowing the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary to follow New Hampshire.  These are the first four contests.

The four states represent different regions, but are far from representative of the nation as a whole.  Iowa and New Hampshire are disproportionately rural and white.  South Carolina is one of the most conservative states in the nation.  Nevada with its large Latino population and big gambling industry is distinctive as well.

The Significance of the Caucus

A second problem with the process is the importance of the caucus/convention system.  Though only a minority of states employ the system, it is quite important in determining nomination outcomes.  How?  The Iowa and Nevada caucuses help to distribute the first coffin nails to lagging presidential candidates.  Early failure in Iowa has caused many presidential candidates to end their campaigns.

Caucuses are evening meetings of party activists that last hours and feature low turnout.  They tend to be populated by the most ideologically extreme activists of the parties.  In Iowa, the 2008 and 2012 caucus winners were Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, candidates on the right wing of their party.  Barack Obama, hero of the left wing of the Democratic Party, triumphed in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

Given the tendency of the Iowa caucuses to award the political extremes, their winner seldom win the presidency.  Only two of the eleven people elected president since 1972 were first winners of the Iowa caucuses before ever taking office in the White House.

Few people know, however, that Barack Obama won the presidency thanks to his big success in caucus states.  Hillary Clinton won more delegates than Obama in the 2008 primaries, but Obama’s domination of the caucuses secured him the nomination.

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., and his wife Michelle and daughter Malia, left, celebrate with his supporters after his victory in the Iowa caucus Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The Obamas after the victory in Iowa 2008

The Minnesota caucuses also feature low turnout, ideologically intense activists, and winners who are hardly in the political center, such as the GOP’s Rick Santorum in 2012.  At present strong conservative Ted Cruz appears primed to win the 2016 Minnesota GOP caucuses.

The  Role of the Media

Then there’s a third problem.  The nomination process is increasingly dominated by the national political media — in two ways.  The media produces polls, many of dubious quality, about the candidate horserace and devotes much attention to this aspect of the contest.  The media also conducts candidate debates in which they encourage scraps between candidates in order to generate headlines about such squabbles.

What’s striking about this is how little power the national party organizations have had lately over their nomination processes.  All they have been able to do in recent months is influence the scheduling of debates.  The Democratic National Committee has limited the number of debates and arranged for them to be staged at times when the audiences will be small in order to enhance the prospects for frontrunner Hillary Clinton.  The Republican National Committee initially limited the number of debates but recently loosened those restrictions.

Party organization weakness gives media-savvy candidates like Donald Trump great advantage in the months before the actual delegate selection begins.  Trump has received more media coverage than all of his rivals combined, which has boosted his standing in the polls.  The media is complicit in shaping the 2016 GOP nomination race by exaggerating Trump’s presence at the expense of his rivals.

The media is interested in audience share in order to make money, not in presenting a fair representation of the various candidates.  The profit motive boosts Trump and the GOP party organization can do nothing about it. So America has a presidential nomination process that is too long, complex, expensive and dominated by the incentives of the national political media.  Its caucus/convention system gives extreme ideologues disproportionate influence over presidential nominations.

No other nation in the world is interested in selecting its candidates for national chief executive through such a method.  What nation would consciously design such a dubious system?  It’s a particularly sad case of American exceptionalism.

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