A Brit Defends America’s Presidential Selection Process

From across the pond, an observation that the way we pick Presidents isn't really that bad after all.

Since we’re subjected to it every single day, sometimes whether we want to be or not and sometimes (oddly enough) voluntarily, the way that we pick Presidents in the United States can seem kind of insane. Virtually from the day that the last Presidential election ends, potential candidates in one or both parties are beginning to position themselves for a Presidential run. Even though nobody actually declared that early, it was fairly obvious in 2009 that Mitt Romney was running for President and that people like Mike Huckabee were at least thinking about it. There were rumors about Jon Huntsman’s Presidential ambitions even as he was being selected to be U.S. Ambassador to China, an event that many had thought would take him out of the running for 2012 completely. And, of course, there was the endless speculation about everyone from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump to Chris Christie.

Even when the campaign starts, things look chaotic and needlessly complicated. There are dozens of debates and even more dozens of straw polls, all of which are supposed to tell us something about the state of the race. The professional pollsters have been polling about the GOP race for 2012 for most of Barack Obama’s Presidency. And, once again, we have a primary season starting mere days after the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season ends. It’s enough to make you think that we’re doing things completely wrong, and that there must be a better way.

Yesterday, however, The Guardian published an interesting editorial arguing that our Presidential selection process actually does a pretty good job of weeding out the bad candidates in the end:

Those who wish to serve the American people in the republic’s highest office embark on an almost medieval series of trials of character and endurance. They must avoid the political equivalents of the slough of despair, the sucking bog of emotionalism, the dreaded stupidity tree, the equally dreaded pit which awaits the overly clever, the dungeon of sexist blunders and other Pythonesque terrors on their way to the castle in which languishes the enchanted princess, otherwise known as their party’s nomination for president. It is a harsh business: one misstep, one ill-chosen word, one witness to earlier misdeeds can bring you down and, often, not just down but out.

The intricate arabesque the successful candidate must trace can resemble that of a skier zigzagging down a slope dotted with barrels of nitroglycerine. The process has a farcical dimension, and sometimes induces a state of almost catatonic caution in the candidates. But it is pretty good at weeding out people who ought not to be the president of the United States, and the way the Republican field is now narrowing is heartening. Michele Bachmann’s early star has fallen, while this week Rick Perry oopsed his way to likely oblivion when he couldn’t remember a major government department he had proposed abolishing.

When you look at history, this seems to be largely true. In 1988, the media paid a lot of attention to the candidacy of Pat Robertson, clearly the most extreme candidate in the race up to that point. However, while he did manage to pull of a surprisingly good showing in the Iowa Caucuses that year, his candidacy pretty much died after that. The same thing happened to Pat Buchanan’s challenge to President George H.W. Bush in 1992. On the Democratic side, the populist campaign of Howard Dean crashed on the shores of the Iowa Caucuses while the even more quixotic campaigns of Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich were largely ignored by the Democratic rank and file. In the end, the primary process seems to be designed to select candidates likely to appeal to the vast middle of American politics and, when they don’t for some reason, such as in 1964 and 1972, the party ends up getting punished in the General Election.

So while we’re spending most of 2011 focusing on the nutty candidates — the Bachmanns, the Cains, the Trumps — we’re still at the point where the guy who is most likely to win the Republican nomination is the guy in the middle:

So, for the moment, the finger points to Mitt Romney. To date there is nothing much against him except that 30 years ago he strapped his dog to the roof of the car when he and his family went on holiday to Canada. Nothing much, that is, except his constantly changing positions on a variety of important political issues. Yet, while he is undoubtedly a devious man, he is also a serious politician running a serious campaign. If he became president many Americans would be unhappy, but they wouldn’t be scared that they had put a fruitcake into the White House. This is important because the Republican tilt toward saner choices, if that is what it is, is taking place in a new context. It is not just the Occupy movement which suggests that American public opinion may have finally begun to focus on questions of inequality and class, with the old hot-button issues of the American culture wars fading in importance.

Romney is far from perfect. I’d personally prefer if candidates like Huntsman and Gary Johnson were getting more attention at this point in the race, but he also seems the most plausibly Presidential of all the frontrunners in the race. If the GOP does end up turning to him in the end, as I expected they will, then they will just be doing what the system is designed to do. You can complain about it, but as Winston Churchill said about democracy, it is likely the worst system invented for selecting a President, except for all the others.

H/T:  Jazz Shaw

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Democracy, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jay says:

    Our process still prevents anyone who isn’t a member of the Big Two Parties from winning, so, to me, it still isn’t an acceptable nomination process.

  2. @Jay:

    It’s Duverger’s Law. If you want more than two parties, you need a voting process based on something other than plurality wins.

  3. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Hamilton was right and Jefferson was wrong; ergo the Framers made a gigantic mistake in not unequivocally eliminating any possibility of the general public participating in the selection of presidents and other federal office holders. For presidents, especially, Zombieland should have no direct involvement whatsoever. Presidents should be chosen by a convention of state governors. The federal Constitution merely should have guaranteed that the individual states had to have popular gubernatorial elections. The primary reason why we’re in such dire straits as a country is because Zombieland is allowed to have their collective voice heard. When you allow that to happen ultimately you descend to the lowest common denominator.

  4. ponce says:


    What are you on about now, Nicky?

    Americans shouldn’t be allowed to choose their president?

  5. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    The idea that the system is good at weeding out the crazies seems facile. It’s like saying that the American education system is good because we’ve been really good at not implementing programs that don’t work. Curricula that won’t work well and crazies are both fairly easy to identify. The next problem is that the argument seems to beg the question–since we are good at getting rid of the crazies, we are also good at finding the “best:” candidates. But the author was glib and his examples had the proper pop culture references, so he must be on to something.

    Thanks, Doug! This post was really…er…I can’t think of the word..can somebody help me?

  6. Kit says:

    I believe Churchill actually said: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

    If you must go with Churchill, I think a more apt quotation would be: You can always count on Americans to do the right thing–after they’ve tried everything else.

    Still, even if we agree that the current system tends “to select candidates likely to appeal to the vast middle of American politics” (and that seems to be flirting with being an outright tautology), it still ignores the possibility that a better-designed system could encourage a better class of candidate to throw their hats into the ring in the first place.

    Unless you really think that any of the various front runners represent the best that the country can put forward, it’s enough to make you think that we’re doing things completely wrong, and that there must be a better way.