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Getting the Candidate We Deserve


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Clarmont Review of Books

Time to redesign the GOP presidential nominating process.
Jeffrey H. Anderson



Back to the Grassroots

General election voters are typically no more impressed with such candidates than rank-and-file Republicans are. Since Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, Republicans’ average performance in the electoral vote has been to lose, 312-225. Over that roughly 30-year span, the Democrats’ average performance (winning 312 electoral votes) has beaten the Republicans’ best performance (Trump’s 304 in 2016). Meanwhile, the GOP has won the popular vote just once over that period (when George W. Bush managed 50.7% in 2004). It turns out that spending two years successfully courting Republican donors and “somewhat conservative” voters isn’t a good predictor of general election prowess.

The old adage says that “the office should seek the man, not the man the office.” Yet the current system fosters the opposite tendency, elevating the showman over the statesman. In Presidential Selection (1979), one of the best books on American politics in the past half-century, political scientist James Ceaser laments “the failure of the selection system to offer any restraint or provide a moderating influence on the pursuit and exercise of power.” Alas, the direct primary is here to stay—and it is not without its merits. The challenge, in Ceaser’s words, is how “to reestablish the political party as a restraining and moderating force on political power, but in such a way that it can pass the test of modern standards of republican legitimacy.”

Are Republicans really capable of establishing a nomination system based on reflection and choice? Or will they remain forever dependent upon accident and afterthought? None of the problems with the current nomination system can be solved by changing the order in which states vote, shrinking or expanding the calendar, or any of the other modest alterations intermittently floated. What is needed is a holistic overhaul. The new system must allow grassroots Republicans, rather than marginally conservative Upper East Side millionaires, to winnow the field. It must retain the primaries as the ultimate decider, but reinstate a meaningful convention; encourage consensus rather than mere centrism; and focus on nominating the most electable statesman who can do the job of preserving our constitutional forms and our American way of life.

In 2013, Jay Cost and I proposed in National Affairs (“A Republican Nomination Process,” summer issue) that Republicans adopt a new nomination system based on how the Constitution was ratified. Such a system would combine the best of old and new. It would empower the Republican base and in the process revitalize the party, both as an electoral force and as a Tocquevillian civil association—which would strengthen it, in turn, as an electoral force. Taking into account the changes of circumstance that have occurred over the past decade, what follows is an updated, somewhat modified, and more practical version of our proposal.


A Real Contest

The convention would meet over a three-day period starting roughly five days after New Year’s. The delegates would convene and take a series of votes. During each vote, delegates would list up to five selections for their party’s nominee, with their choices ranked 1 through 5. The first choice would receive five points, the second four, on down to one point for the fifth. If a delegate listed only two people, they would receive five and four points, respectively, and no other points would be awarded. All votes from this simple and straightforward scoring system would be tallied within an hour or two, with results released publicly for the ten people with the highest scores.

The first vote would occur early on the first day. Several hours after the initial results were released, the delegates would cast a second vote in identical fashion. Those results would be released late on the first day or very early on the second. Midway through the second day, a third vote would be taken in the same manner. This time, the ten proposed candidates with the highest scores would be notified and asked to declare before the end of the second evening whether they would accept the invitation to compete for the nomination if offered. Should anyone turn down the opportunity, the eleventh-highest-scoring person would be asked, and so on. Midway through the third and final day, the delegates would cast their final and decisive votes, in the same manner as their earlier votes, from among the ten proposed candidates who had confirmed interest. The final scores would then be released, and those with the five highest scores would officially be invited to compete for the party’s nomination.

Two weeks later, those five candidates—and only those five—would participate in the first Republican presidential debate (held five months later than the first debate was held during the 2016 cycle). The five candidates would subsequently debate each other weekly until the nomination was decided. This would magnify the importance of the debates and correspondingly reduce the relevance of ads (and hence of consultants and donors). The debates would feature questions from conservative panelists: imagine, for example, a debate moderated by Brit Hume with questions posed by Ben Shapiro, Mollie Hemingway, and Victor Davis Hanson.

Based on the past two cycles, the first contest would take place in Iowa during the first week of February, following the first two debates. The New Hampshire primary would occur a week later, after a third debate. The Democrats are currently seeking to reorder the primary calendar and place South Carolina first, while President Biden has called for eliminating all caucuses—the events where citizens get most involved—on the grounds that they are “anti-worker.” The real motivation is that Biden did far worse in Iowa (fourth place) and New Hampshire (fifth place) than any prior nominee in the post-1968 era. But he won in South Carolina. It is by no means certain that Iowa and New Hampshire will be bumped from their customary spots, since Biden can’t unilaterally decree this change and faces opposition both from Democrats in those states and from their Republican-controlled state governments. For purposes of this proposal, it doesn’t really matter whether Iowa and New Hampshire go first, but voting shouldn’t start before February 1 (later would be fine).

Primary voting would decide the nominee as it does now. Delegates (selected as now) would go to the summertime, made-for-TV convention to make that choice official. The presidential nominee would pick the vice-presidential nominee from among the four other finalists for the presidential nomination—and only those four. This would restore the party’s role in ensuring that a desirable successor is waiting in the wings as necessary, thereby avoiding the kind of insider politicking that gave us Kamala Harris.

That’s how the process would play out if there weren’t an incumbent Republican president. If there were, the delegates’ first course of action would be to vote on whether to support the incumbent as the nominee. A three-fourths majority would be required—a threshold that would easily have been met by Reagan, George W. Bush, or Trump, but perhaps not by Gerald Ford or George H.W. Bush. If three-fourths support weren’t obtained, the usual process of selecting candidates would then play out with the following exception: after the results were released from the second vote on potential candidates, the delegates would vote one final time, during the morning of the second day, on the question of whether to support the incumbent. This time, a two-thirds majority would suffice to throw the weight of the convention behind the incumbent and obviate any further consideration of other candidates.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

This proposed system would offer numerous advantages both to Republicans and to the republic:


  • It would shift control to the party’s grassroots. The current system presents everyday Republicans with a field of candidates they have little to no role in determining. A choice among undesirable options isn’t much of a choice. Since “somewhat” conservatives generally swing the process, it’s crucial for grassroots Republicans to have a strong say in winnowing the field. Right now, that winnowing process is controlled by donors, consultants, and the press, none of whom share the base’s goals. Returning power to the base would help the Republican Party in almost every conceivable way, starting by generating enthusiasm among its own voters.
  • It would combine the best of old and new. The old convention system encouraged deliberation and the selection of a consensus nominee that most of the party could easily get behind. This proposal would reinstitute a meaningful and dynamic convention, encourage deliberation and consensus-building, and ultimately grant invitations to five candidates with strong appeal as finalists for the nomination—while preserving the right of voters ultimately to decide the outcome.
  • It would bring better candidates into the process. Strong potential candidates, including many governors, cabinet secretaries, and even workhorse members of the Senate or House, often avoid the current two-year ordeal. The new process would only be about as long as that which JFK faced, rather than spanning half an Olympiad. Distinction and advancement would come from doing well in the debates, rather than from courting an army of high-powered donors and consultants in order to sustain a lengthy primary campaign. Sure, some candidates would continue to launch campaigns—some overtly, some discreetly—in advance of the nomination convention, in hopes of landing one of the five spots. That’s fine. This process would nevertheless ensure that the party could choose among its best and brightest, rather than having only the most ambitious candidates, in combination with the richest donors, decide the finalists on behalf of the party.
  • It would produce more consensus nominees. This would occur in two ways. First, the five finalists would almost certainly be more widely favored picks than the five de facto finalists who emerge under the current system, because no one could become a finalist without either being the first choice of a great many delegates or having broad appeal. Second, if it became clear that the frontrunner wasn’t a consensus choice—as in the case of Seward versus Lincoln—it would be relatively easy for voters to unite behind a second- or third-place candidate who had more consensus appeal. This would make for a marked contrast to the present system, in which a lone establishment candidate is generally left vying against several flawed, albeit more conservative, challengers.
  • It would allow more voters to have a meaningful say. Not only do most voters now have essentially no say in whom they get to choose from, many don’t get to choose at all until the race is effectively over. From 1972 onward, eleven of the 13 eventual Republican nominees have won in New Hampshire, while the other two have finished second there after winning in Iowa—in which case the race was effectively decided in South Carolina. Voters in the other 47 states were basically handed a done deal. But with five candidates all having emerged from the nomination convention buoyed by that vote of confidence, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina would probably play out more like warmups than like the main events. In relation to the current system, each of the five finalists would already have won something and therefore wouldn’t be so dependent on donors’ whims, reporters’ tales of momentum, or the verdicts of initial small states.
  • It would help revitalize the party. Republicans supposedly believe in the sort of civil associations celebrated by Alexis de Tocqueville, yet they’ve let their own party stop functioning much like one. This proposal would help revitalize the party’s state and local branches, as members would be actively involved in picking delegates to represent them at the nominating convention—and perhaps would even be under consideration to be such a delegate. Such revitalization, even on the margins, would help with get-out-the-vote efforts and would be an important end in itself.
  • It would save money to be redirected toward better ends. The current process costs staggering sums, as large and small donors alike open their checkbooks for well over a year before even starting to focus on beating the Democratic nominee. For all of that money, the current process typically yields a non-consensus centrist nominee who isn’t ideally suited to win the election or govern if he does.


It’s time to redesign the Republican nomination system in a way that draws upon the process used to ratify the Constitution, reinstitutes a meaningful and deliberative convention, and preserves the right of primary voters to have the final say. In short, it’s time for the Grand Old Party to embrace a presidential nomination system of its own design, rather than continuing to use a deeply flawed system designed by and for the Left.


Good Idea....Waaaay to late for 2024.

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