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

Published: April 26, 2017

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