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The Election of Presidents
Russell D. Renka
PS103 - April 29, 2009

Primaries and Electoral College:  Free Agents Need Not Apply
Takeover by the Primaries

Primaries and Electoral College:  Free Agents Need Not Apply        Top; Next Down

    For over a century the two major parties chose their presidential nominees at suspenseful national nominating conventions.  These events were worth watching, and political reporters flocked to them.  This is no longer true.  Now they are "giant infomercials" for candidates who are chosen in advance, during state primaries and caucuses.

    The presidential primary season of 2008 gave rise to speculation that the Democrats would not resolve their presidential nomination decision until the national nominating convention was held in Denver on August 25-28 (The Official 2008 Democratic National Convention).  That did not happen.  There was also speculation that their 796 free-agent superdelegates would have to resolve the issue of Obama v. Clinton in summer after state primaries concluded and before the Convention met.  That was also highly unlikely, and indeed did not happen either (2008 Democratic Convention Watch - Superdelegate Endorsement List).  The nominee won based on having the most delegates, and then chose his vice-presidential running mate before the Convention while introducing that person at the Convention itself.  The Convention itself was, as always,  a celebratory three-day infomercial capped by a prime-time speech from the presidential nominee.  Then on September 1-4 the Republicans affirmed John McCain and his running mate in Minneapolis-St. Paul in the same manner (Republican National Convention 2008 - September 1-4, 2008).

    And one of these two was elected president on 4 November 2008, the Tuesday after the first Monday in the month of November ("Office of the President Elect" at The Obama-Biden Transition Team).  Unlike other democracies, America selects its presidents through a two-step process with only two parties and with the Congress as an observing bystander.  Each party has presidential primaries in a great majority of the 50 states that typically resolve the nominee's identity before the spring equinox of late March in the election year.  These primaries produce state-based delegates who attend their party's summer national convention to formalize that choice.  Following that (and preceding it, to some extent) is the general election campaign leading to Election Day on the first Tuesday after Monday (November 2 to 8 depending on that year's calendar).  This election is governed by winner-take-all plurality popular vote in all but two of the 50 states plus District of Columbia; and all 51 of these "units" formally cast their votes through electors chosen on Election Day.  A month later those electors convene in that state's capitol to make the state election official by casting their votes, and the following January 3-5 the result is officially reported at the opening of the new Congress (NARA Federal Register U. S. Electoral College - "For State Officials" at bottom of page; and Count).

    Delegates and electors are not really important figures with independent powers of decision.  Instead, nowadays both are largely "bound" as instructed agents, rather than being free agents with license to make their own decisions.  Only the Democrats' superdelegates are truly free to choose.  In principal-agent terms, the primary voters and candidates are the principals who hire delegates to formally represent the voters' choice of that candidate at the party convention.  Likewise, electors are not free agents to decide as they wish in December to defy the state's voting plurality.  No, they simply vote as instructed by the state's counted-vote plurality, with rare exceptions that we call "faithless electors."  They are normally a slate of faithful and reliable agents of that state's party, chosen precisely for their deference to the victorious party's imperatives.  Both delegates and electors are now agents for those principals (Principal-agent problem - Wikipedia; Garson, PA 765 Principal Agent Theory).

    Election 2008 was uncommon in that the Democratic primary context was extremely close in popular vote and delegate count (Dave Leip, 2008 Presidential Democratic Primary Election Results).  Since the Democrats use proportional representation to divide up delegates in almost every state, popular vote and delegate divisions are very similar.  That leaves it to the free-agent or "wild card" superdelegates, almost all of whom are high elected officials or highly placed party officers in the several states and D.C. plus territories.  Normally this does not happen, as early primaries resolve the issue for a single nominee. 

    Despite this unusual development, I warned last spring and summer not to count on any serious excitement at the Democratic convention itself.  The reforms of post-1968 put a firm end to that in both parties.  For example, the Republicans' 1952 national nominating convention was exciting to watch, as every political reporter was elbowing to get there and report back the intrigues and moves that would ultimately decide that party's national ticket.  That was the year General Eisenhower threw his name in the ring in June 1952 and ultimately overtook the former front runner Senator Robert Taft of Ohio ("Mr. Republican" in those days) to win the Republican nomination.  The Democrats held an open convention with many contenders, ultimately choosing Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois in a raucous Chicago affair (Parades, Protests and Politics in Chicago, 1952).  But that's the old system.  The post-1968 conventions became scripted infomercials hardly worth the extended television time they still can capture.  This is clear to some political reporters.  One leading television journalist, Ted Koppel of ABC, actually bolted the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego after saying on the air that nothing worthwhile was happening and thus he had no reporting to do.  The true value of Convention watching now is to hear the pre-chosen candidates give their speeches.  Beyond that, year 2008 in both parties resembled 1996 far more than 1952.  Delegates were not free agents able to switch from a Taft to an Eisenhower or back again.

    An historical reason for this loss of freedom is available.  Our political history shows us that occasional public scandals occur where political manipulations of free agents are glaringly defiant of public expectations.  Politics can be a very rough game, and Americans on rare occasions get to fully witness it.  The reaction is periodic revulsion and reform aimed at curbing free agency of either electors or partisan delegates.  The post-1824 erasure of "King Caucus" (which in 1824 chose John Quincy Adams over the far more popular Andrew Jackson), the 1877 Corrupt Bargain (naming the national minority vote winner Rutherford Hayes as president over Samuel Tilden), and the 1968 Democratic Convention (which chose a nominee who had won no state primaries), all prompted moves to curb free agency in favor of instructed agents.

    Like delegates, electors chosen in November do not act on their own.  They vote the way the state's partisan plurality instructs them, with very rare exceptions.  Some disobedience by an Elector or two is still possible in the general election via faithless electors, those well-named occasional miscreants who flout the state or District's voting preference in favor of their own prerogatives (FairVote, The Electoral College - Faithless Electors; Faithless elector - Wikipedia).  But these are sufficiently rare, and their political impact sufficiently small, to be minor irritants rather than major prompts of yet another reform.  The practice survives (in 22 states) only because they have never in modern times altered an election outcome (per The Electoral College - Historical Curiosities, from Dave Leip's U.S. Presidential Election Process - The Electoral College).  Still, I will predict that in some future close election, an attempt by some cabal of electors to alter an election outcome will produce another reform to actually eliminate this formal vestige of the past.  We'll ultimately dispense with the electors altogether in favor of a formal certification of a state's voting result by its Secretary of State (assuming states learn from Florida in 2000 and get better at counting all the ballots that are properly cast!).

    Students often still believe Electors are still important in their own right.  Despite their lack of intrinsic importance, I get regular questions of who these mysterious Electors actually are.  Here is a source for the four presidential elections from 1992 through 2004:  NARA Federal Register U. S. Electoral College, down the page under subheading "List of States, Electoral Votes and Electors."  NARA's "Frequently Asked Questions" also includes this:  Why do we still have the Electoral College?  That's a good question, and many leading political scientists recommend its dissolution.  I do, too, but I have little expectation of this happening any time soon.  It is easy to say why:  because under our two-party duopoly, the College has consistently produced a clear winner (Renka, Presidential Elections through 2008).  That's the single imperative where failure would produce a rapid and decisive abandonment of the College.  The 2000 Florida election snafu was not the fault of the College, which duly recorded what the Florida state officials certified as an official vote count with a 25 to 0 verdict for Bush over Gore, thus giving Bush the national College victory by count of 271 to 266 (with one Gore elector from D.C. going faithless).

    The College was originally a byproduct of the venerable Great Compromise of the 1787 Philadelphia proceedings whereby each state gets representation of two senatorial votes plus seats of representatives apportioned by population.  The Electoral College vote share such as Florida's 25 in 2000 is a simple additive function of House seats plus the two Senate seats (23 plus 2 for Florida in 2000).  It produces some bias in vote count, but slight enough that only a 2000 or 1960 election with less than 1 percentage point between the major party candidates can produce a minority winner (like Bush in 2000, who won half a percentage point fewer national popular votes than Gore; see Dave Leip's 2000 Presidential General Election Results).  That violates democratic one-person, one-vote, but only by a little bit.

    So the Electoral College can allow for occasional faithless free-agent electors, and for occasional small violations by deflating the national plurality-count leader's share of College votes to a loser's harvest.  But most often, it's a positive glow factor for the popular vote election winner (Renka, Presidential Elections through 2010).  We know that all SMSP systems produce a bias in favor of the leading vote-getter when converting millions of popular vote units into a few hundred seats (or 538 College votes divided among 51 units of varying size, from smallest states at 3 to California at its current 55 votes).  The average bias is quite large; Presidential Elections through 2010 shows a gain of 23 percentage points for the most recent 21 presidential elections, where a 53 percent popular vote harvest converts into 76 percent of the College!  That looks rather impressive on election night color television.  And surely one cannot expect ambitious presidents-elect to willingly give up such a prospective advantage.

    Just as importantly, this premium of votes has saved the College from a potential downfall of its own making.  The constitutional rules of the College require that it produce a majority, not merely a plurality, for any decision to be rendered by it.  That's why we call 270 the "magic number" in the College's 538 votes, since 270 is the minimal winning number.  That is a potentially fatal weakness, for any institution that is responsible for choosing a government must achieve that with high reliability if it's to survive.  This inflationary effect for plurality winners has thwarted many a third-party attempt to deadlock the College.  That includes the southern campaigns against a pro-civil rights Democratic Party nominee and party platform (Leip, 1948 Presidential Election Results and 1968 Presidential Election Results).  Neither one worked even though these southerners Thurmond and Wallace claimed some states and College votes.  Not even the four-party 1860 division was enough to prevent the national plurality winner, Republican Abraham Lincoln, from claiming victory with 39 percent of the popular vote but 60 percent of the College (1860 Presidential General Election Results).  Winner-take-all evolved in practically all 19th century states because well-organized political parties saw advantage to it; and today it's universal except for two small states of Nebraska and Maine that permit division of electoral vote across the two congressional districts in each.  The state parties that chose winner-take-all for selfish reasons produce a bias in the national College that works strongly against its own potentially fatal flaw.  Go figure.

Takeover by the Primaries                     Top

    How and why do primaries dominate the nomination process?  Through 1968 the conventions ruled, the primaries were mainly show-of-strength contests to impress state party leaders, and delegates of the two parties were either controlled by state party bosses or were free agents at the Convention.  The disastrous televised 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago basically ended this old system.  The post-1968 outburst of state presidential primary contests undercut those state leaders and "bound" the delegates to vote at the convention the way they were selected in association with a candidate.  Once the primaries proliferated, they quickly were adopted in the majority of American states.  By 1984 over 40 of the 50 states had a presidential primary in each party.  As a result, the winning nominee became known earlier and earlier, leaving California's early June primary to become so meaningless that in 2008 the largest state switched to the February 5 Super Tuesday contest date.  Instead, the real action was in the earliest states, led by New Hampshire as the first-in-the-nation (under state law) to conduct a primary.  Also the State of Iowa, with a caucus instead of a primary, preceded New Hampshire and became a major player after Jimmy Carter in 1976 surprised everyone with an upstart victory there in the January snows.  By 1988 and thereafter, we could reliably forecast that each party's presidential nominee would be known before the March 20-22 spring equinox.

    In 2008 we knew the Republican nominee by Wednesday morning of February 6.  That's because so many large states pushed themselves forward to Tuesday, February 5 (see P2008 -The 2008 Presidential Campaign; The Green Papers, Election 2008 - Primary, Caucus, and Convention Phase; Ron Gunzberger's Politics1 - 2008 U.S. Presidential Election (P2008)).  This effort, led by California, produced a de facto national primary--and not by deliberate design and forethought, but simply as the byproduct of each state clamoring to gets its due share of attention and solicitude from the candidates.  In typical prisoner's dilemma fashion, it's every state for itself in a "race to the front."

    In 2007 we also saw an unprecedented early start to the "invisible primary" or pre-primary, many months before Iowa and New Hampshire events become official in winter 2008 (The Pre-Primary Period -2008 Presidential Campaign).  Added to that was absence of an incumbent president or pre-race favorite sitting in the Vice-president's chair, in either party.  It was wide open and rambunctious.  And it was expensive, on the web and off.

    I also expected to know the Democratic nominee well before the March 20 spring equinox since most primaries would be finished by then.  But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were so closely matched in electoral appeal that they pulled a surprise:  this contest went long into April and even May via Texas and Pennsylvania contests before Obama's numerical advantage finally become insurmountable.  Incidentally, this was also made possible by Democratic proportional allocation of delegates in their state primaries.  Republicans use winner-take-all instead; so two candidates as close as Obama-Clinton on the GOP (Republican) side would not have lasted so late into the endless primary season.

    Obama still won well before the Convention, as did McCain.  So Another result of the post-1968 system is that the general election starts long before the conventions meet.  In 20th century elections through 1968, the convention truly mattered with respect to choosing the ticket.  Once both nominees were established and the party chose the running mate, only then the general election campaign would traditionally kick off in early September right after Labor Day for an eight-week-long general election campaign.  But no longer.  Now it doesn't await the Convention speech of the primary winner and his or her running mate.  Instead, in 2008 that general election campaign started in earnest as soon as both nominees are known for sure.  And why not?  You'll have your nominee and they'll have theirs, both with boatloads of money on hand dedicated to hard-money and soft-money commercials aimed at lauding themselves and pillorying the other side.  Even if the two national parties and campaigns were inclined to hold resources and fire until summer, their associated free agent independent spenders (look up "Swift Boat Veterans" and "Swift Boating" in 2004, for example) will not.  Nobody with all this weaponry waits politely before starting to shoot.

    Nomination-by-primary also has a major effect on presidential nominees and succession.  When the nominee is established by state primaries, delegates at the Convention cannot independently select a vice-presidential running mate.  Only the nominee has that prerogative.  The nominee in 2008 interviewed candidates, vetted their backgrounds, and named the running mate before the Convention meets.  That's how the nation first heard of Sarah Palin, when John McCain announced her as his running mate.  They arrived triumphantly at the Convention hand in hand, gave prime time evening speeches on successive evenings, and soaked in the adoration of the spectator-delegates.  It was all carefully pre-scripted.

    One of these two duopoly party tickets won on November 4, 2008.   Since 20 January 2009 President Obama has been accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, who would become President immediately upon death, impeachment, resignation, or permanent disability of the principal.  And even barring that, Veeps have become "heir apparent" presidential candidates in both parties since 1968.  They all owe that high station to the modern system of primary-determined presidential nominees who have license to pick their own successors.  The old notion of Vice-Presidents being rarely seen and never heard is long gone.

Copyrightę2007-2009, Russell D. Renka