Electoral College: A Defense
George Will argues that the 2008 election demonstrates precisely what the Framers sought to prevent with the Electoral College.
In a Presidential contest replete with novelties, none was more significant than this: A candidate’s campaign—for his party’s nomination, then for the presidency—was itself virtually the entire validation of his candidacy. Voters have endorsed Barack Obama’s audacious—but not, they have said, presumptuous—proposition, which was: The skill, tenacity, strategic vision and tactical nimbleness of my campaign is proof that I am presidential timber.
Under their plan, the nomination of candidates and the election of the president were to occur simultaneously. Electors meeting in their respective states, in numbers equal to their states’ senators and representatives, would vote for two people for president. The electors’ winnowing of aspirants was the nomination process. When the votes were opened in the U.S. House of Representatives, the candidate with a majority would become president, the runner-up would become vice president. If no person achieved a majority of electoral votes, the House would pick from among the top five vote getters. Note well: The selection of presidential nominees was to be controlled by the Constitution.
The Founders’ intent, [UVa political scientist James] Ceaser writes, was to prevent the selection of a president from being determined by the “popular arts” of campaigning, such as rhetoric. The Founders, Ceaser says, “were deeply fearful of leaders deploying popular oratory as the means of winning distinction.” That deployment would invite demagoguery, which subverts moderation. “Brilliant appearances,” wrote John Jay in The Federalist Papers 64, “… sometimes mislead as well as dazzle.” By telling members of the political class how not to get considered for the presidency, the Founders hoped to (in Ceaser’s words) “make virtue the ally of interest” and shape the behavior of that class.
As Will notes, however, that rationale collapsed almost immediately. Once George Washington left the scene, the aspirants to the presidency were aligned with political parties and the 2nd place finisher as VP notion became absurd. Indeed, the system has evolved radically since then:
Subsequent systems included: The selection of presidential candidates by the parties’ congressional caucuses (1796—1820); nonpartisan selection (1824—28); national nominating conventions controlled by parties’ organizations (1832—1908); a system of such conventions leavened by popular choice through a few state party primaries and caucuses (1912—68)—in 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without entering any primaries; since 1972, selection of nominees entirely by popular choice. Thus have conventions been reduced from deliberative bodies to mere ratifying bodies.
Not to be overly trite, but good and bad presidents have been selected under each system that lasted long enough to produce at least two presidents. Obama has less experience and more campaign acumen than most who have won the office but, certainly, we’ve had mediocre presidents with great resumes and good ones with weak ones.
Further, there’s a case to be made that the Electoral College actually rewards campaigning skills more than would a national popular vote. Rather than having to appeal to the broad swath of voters, one can cobble together a strategy that relies on getting out the vote in key states.