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The Chosen One: Thoughts on a Better, Fairer, and Smarter Way to Choose Presidential Nominees

Although the 2016 pres­id­en­tial primar­ies garnered profound dissat­is­fac­tion with the nomin­a­tion process, lead­ing to wide­spread accus­a­tions of unfair­ness within both parties, most voters will forget our current system’s issues until the 2020 elec­tion. But in a new paper, Bren­nan Center fellow, Roll Call colum­nist, and Yale lecturer in polit­ical science Walter Shapiro argues that 2020 will be far too late to rethink the nomin­a­tion process – and there are a series of prac­tical and effect­ive reforms that could be put in place now to create a more repres­ent­at­ive system that limits the chances of unpop­u­lar or contro­ver­sial candid­ates.

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When Amer­ic­ans cast their 2016 pres­id­en­tial ballots, the collect­ive emotion could be summar­ized as: “How did we get this dismal choice?”

The Gallup Poll found that Donald Trump and Hillary Clin­ton were saddled “with the worst elec­tion-eve images of any major-party pres­id­en­tial candid­ates Gallup has meas­ured back to 1956.” The national exit polls painted an equally depressed picture. A stun­ning 57 percent of the voters said — before they knew the outcome — that they would be “concerned” or “scared” if Trump were elec­ted. For her part, Clin­ton did not score much better.

For me, a polit­ical colum­nist cover­ing his tenth pres­id­en­tial campaign, the emblem­atic voter was a general contractor in his fifties whom I met at the polling station in Notting­ham, New Hamp­shire, on Elec­tion Day. Depressed over his choices, he had inten­ded to leave the pres­id­en­tial line blank. But, at the last minute, he ticked the box marked Trump. As he explained, “I decided that I didn’t want to vote for Hillary more than I didn’t want to vote for Trump.”

Not since, perhaps, 1968 has there been such profound dissat­is­fac­tion with how candid­ates were nomin­ated for pres­id­ent. The prob­lem was not only the unpop­ular­ity of Trump and Clin­ton, but also the wide­spread accus­a­tions of unfair­ness that accom­pan­ied the nomin­a­tion fights in both parties.

The lead­er­ship of the Demo­cratic Party (as the hack­ing published by Wikileaks later revealed) oper­ated as if Hillary Clin­ton’s nomin­a­tion were a fore­gone conclu­sion — and delib­er­ately tried to limit her expos­ure in campaign debates. Far more egre­giously on the Repub­lican side, Trump benefited from rules that emphas­ized TV ratings over seri­ous debates; a prolif­er­a­tion of winner-take-all primar­ies that accel­er­ated a rush to judg­ment; party chair­man Reince Priebus (now Trump’s White House chief of staff) prema­turely decree­ing the GOP race over after the May 3 Indi­ana primary; and the stifling of any attempt to chal­lenge Trump’s nomin­a­tion at the Clev­e­land Conven­tion.

Despite a brief flurry of interest before the conven­tions, there has been little sustained discus­sion of the system under which the Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans nomin­ate pres­id­en­tial candid­ates. And, if history is any gauge, there will be scant voter interest in such process ques­tions until the 2020 campaign begins in earn­est. Then — and only then — will some candid­ates and their most ardent support­ers start rail­ing against the unfair­ness of the rules.

The issue here is not whom the parties select, but rather how such candid­ates should be chosen. As a journ­al­ist, I have been wrest­ling with the chal­lenge of find­ing better and fairer ways to nomin­ate pres­id­en­tial candid­ates for decades. I am far more inter­ested in what might be attain­able in 2020 or 2024 than I am in devis­ing an ideal system that never moves beyond armchair theory. With that goal in mind, I want to offer some thoughts on pick­ing future pres­id­en­tial nomin­ees.

The Chosen One: Thoughts on a Better, Fairer, and Smarter Way to Pick Pres­id­en­tial Nomin­ees by The Bren­nan Center for Justice