A Citizen’s Guide to Presidential Nominations
The Competition for Leadership
Citizen Guides to Politics and Public Affairs Series
New York: Routledge, 2015
Paperback. xvii+156 p. 6 figures, 4 tables. ISBN 978-0415827591. $23.95
Reviewed by Jasper M. Trautsch
How to (S)elect a Presidential Candidate in the United States?
Published, perfectly timed, right before the beginning of this year’s presidential primaries in the U.S., Wayne P. Steger’s book is a most welcome introduction to American presidential nominations. In this succinct and readable book, he skillfully explains in only about 150 pages how presidential candidates are chosen and who holds power in the process. Arguing that the nomination procedure can either be an “insider game,” in which the party establishment seeks to agree on a candidate in so-called “invisible primaries” before the actual primaries officially commence, and an “outsider game,” in which the large mass of party identifiers decide on their preferred candidate during the primaries and caucuses and which usually takes place when the party leadership is too divided to unite behind a contender early on, Steger lays bare the many factors determining whom the two major parties nominate to run for the presidency, such as the level of party cohesion, the timing of party stakeholders’ coalescence around a candidate, and the number of contenders that are suitable in terms of their political positions, viability, and electability.
Part of the Routledge Citizen Guides to Politics and Public Affairs series – a collection of easy-to-read and concise overviews of important aspects of American politics, addressed to students and the general public and intended to help citizens fully understand the U.S. political system – Steger’s book is well-written, informative, and reliable. It will serve very well all those interested in finding out more about how the nominating process works, which can sometimes appear utterly confusing amidst the media circus accompanying it. Indeed, the release of this highly relevant volume on presidential primaries was certainly warranted, not only because of the significance that the primaries have for the American political process but also because many people will not be familiar with the many intricacies of the nomination procedure. After all, many observers might wonder: why voting takes place at different dates in the various states; what the difference between primaries and caucuses is; how the modern primary and caucus system developed; and why the primaries sometimes produce dark horse candidates, while at other times they only confirm the candidate the media have deemed most likely to win for many months before.
While the contributions to the Citizen Guide series are primarily meant to be informative and not to advance revisionist theses (and therefore do not lend themselves to critical review), it is still possible to discern and discuss two claims, which form the normative basis of Steger’s analysis. First, he seems to take for granted that primaries and caucuses, in which party members democratically choose the party’s presidential candidate in elections, are better than other methods of selecting frontrunners. Welcoming the changes made to the nominating process in the 1970s, when backroom deals and negotiations by party stakeholders at national conventions were replaced by open elections at the state level, Steger is mainly concerned with finding out whether the procedural alterations fulfilled what they were expected to achieve, i.e. whether party identifiers actually have obtained the power to choose candidates of their own liking or whether the leadership’s wishes in fact still determine the outcome. Alternative selection procedures are not discussed. Second, Steger assumes that the more democratic the nomination process is, the better. He is critical of party establishments unifying behind and channeling their resources towards a certain candidate early on and thus effectively making the decision, which the party members then are expected to only symbolically confirm by their votes. Competitive races, in which candidates have to try hard to appeal to and win the favor of the party faithful, seem preferable.
While to an American audience these assertions might seem unproblematic (it is unlikely that the institution of presidential primaries and caucuses will be replaced in the foreseeable future), a reader from Europe (where, in most states, and particularly in parliamentary as opposed to presidential democracies, candidates running to head the national governments are selected in different ways) might have wished for a more balanced discussion of the benefits and risks inherent in the American nominating system – not least because demands that primaries be introduced to Europe have become ever more frequent in recent years. Particularly after Barack Obama’s surprising nomination as presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in 2008, many commentators on the eastern side of the Atlantic applauded America’s democratic primary system, lamenting that such an unconventional choice would have been hardly possible in the “Old World” with its entrenched and inflexible political structures.
However, one might wish to take into account that democratic primaries tend to lead to the selection of more “radical” candidates who take non-compromising partisan stances on political issues and promise non-wavering commitment to the party’s ideology. As a result, voters in the presidential elections might be presented with two “extreme” nominees and thus be deprived of the option of voting for a “moderate” contender representing the political center. The current Republican primaries are a case in point. According to Steger’s framework, they are proceeding in the best possible way: they are an open contest over which the party establishment has lost control. “Rogue” candidates directly appeal to the party members, not only defying the party establishment’s wishes but actually turning their “outsider” status to maximum political advantage. However, whether the result will be ideal – no matter whether Donald Trump or Ted Cruz receives most delegates – is a different question.
Admittedly, at the very end of the book, Steger concedes that more democratic nomination procedures may “produce outcomes that are less representative of the general public,” because those voting in presidential primaries and caucuses are “quite a bit more liberal or conservative than the average citizen” . However, he maintains that the polarization that characterizes current U.S. politics has only affected the legislature but not the executive, arguing that – to become President – a candidate must win the support of a heterogeneous alliance of voters and thus “shift toward the ideological center once they are nominated” , whereas – to be elected to Congress in their local election districts – a candidate must appeal to a much smaller and usually more homogeneous electorate. While it may be true that congressional candidates are more likely to be ideological hardliners than presidential ones, the increasing influence of party activists on the presidential nominations that Steger traces throughout his book would allow one to conclude that democratic presidential primaries, in which party activists choose candidates on the basis of the ideological purity of their political views, would also make it less likely for moderate candidates seeking compromise and willing to reach across the aisle to be nominated .* In any case, whether candidates should be elected by all party members, whether they should be selected by the party establishment, or whether yet another system integrating both approaches could be found is a question worth exploring in more detail.
*Other characteristics of the modern nominating systems also call for more caution when discussing their democratic virtues. Democratic primaries are much more expensive than nominations resulting from negotiations between the party leaders, since candidates have to campaign across the country and finance TV commercials and other media ads to promote themselves among the party electorate. As a result, acquiring the financial support of influential lobby groups and wealthy individuals has often been a precondition for a successful campaign – a development that is at odds with the goal of giving ordinary people a larger role in the nomination process. Finally, one might wish to consider that the primaries – in being candidate-based – undermine the political role of parties in the political process and tend to make the screening of the contenders’ personalities more important than the debating of political issues.
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