“The Historical Development of the U.S. Presidential Nominations Process”

Rick Pildes has posted this draft on SSRN (Forthcoming in The Best Candidate: Presidential Nomination in Polarized Times (E. Mazo ed.)) Here is the abstract:

The presidential-candidate nomination process is increasingly a train wreck. Voters are now asked to sort through 15 -25 candidates. Celebrity and prior name recognition are just as important or moreso than high-level experience in government. The ability to raise small donations from 65,000 donors, mainly through the internet, has become a factor one party is now using in deciding which candidates are “serious” enough to be eligible to participate in the key candidate debates. The ability to achieve early success in a few (not particularly representative) states has dramatic affects on a candidate’s prospects.

How did we get to this point? This piece looks at the development of the contemporary presidential nominations process. We now take for granted that this is how we select nominees for the presidential election, but we have actually been using our current system only since the 1970s. This piece explores the context and reasons for those changes in the 1970s, and shows how much the current system came about almost as a matter of accident, rather than as the conscious plan of those who re-designed the selection process. This work also contrasts the current system with the way the nominations process had been designed until the 1970s — the system of political conventions. Seeking to rehabilitate the understanding of how that prior system worked, this piece illuminates the greater complexity and positive aspects of the convention nominating process.

The main aim of this work is to destabilize the notion that there is anything “natural” or inherent to democracy about the way we currently select nominees of the major parties for the presidency. This work is a chapter in a forthcoming 2020 book entitled The Best Candidate: Presidential Nomination in Polarized Times. The book reflects current unease with the nominations process and ideas about how critical element in our elections might be better designed. 


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