Presidential Primary

February 16, 2000

Now that we are in the midst of the presidential primary season, I'm starting to hear questions about whether there is a better way to nominate a president. To answer that question, perhaps it would be good to review the four different systems we have used to pick a president as described by Richard Brookhiser in a recent Wall Street Journal column.

The first system was by acclamation. This was the method used to select George Washington. But the development of party politics quickly eliminated this option.

The second system was "selection by party leaders." Initially this involved Alexander Hamilton writing his Federalist friends, while James Madison canvassed the Republicans. While this worked for awhile, by 1824 every major political leader was in the Republican fold. This oversupply of candidates caused a breakdown in the system and the election had to be thrown to the House.

This led to the third system: political conventions. In the 1830s, political conventions modeled on the religious revival meetings began to be used to select candidates. Although demonstrations in the convention hall had some effect on the outcome, the party leadership still exercised a great deal of influence and made various back room deals.

The final system is what we have today: primaries. As more state delegations came to be chosen in primaries, the importance of conventions diminished. As recently as 1960, the five men pursuing the Democratic nomination faced only seven primaries, and only two of them were significant. John Kennedy's good showing in those primaries led to his nomination. By the 1980s, every state chose its delegates in a primary or caucus.

Primaries are the most democratic system, but also the most expensive and time-consuming. But that's the system we have today, and it is doubtful we will go back to a system where party leader choose the nominee instead of the voters.

I'm Kerby Anderson of Probe Ministries, and that's my opinion.