Front-Loading Problem in Presidential Nominations / Edition 1

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The race for the White House may seem like a marathon, but the nomination process is becoming a sprint, with the starting gun fired earlier each time. Where state primaries and caucuses were once spread out over a period of three or four months, most are now crammed into a four— or five—week interval at the very beginning of the delegate selection calendar. The compression and hastening of the nomination season are changing the nature of the presidential selection process, the most visible pillar of American democracy. Despite the importance of this issue in American politics, however, too little systematic analysis has been done on the topic. This is the first book to offer a comprehensive examination of the front-loading problem in all its facets.

William Mayer and Andrew Busch define the parameters of the front-loading question as well as its impact. They trace the history that shaped the current system and explain why it is such a critical element of presidential elections. Most important, the authors present a detailed analysis of all the major proposals for coping with front-loading and of the political and constitutional obstacles for reform. While they conclude that there is no easy solution to this complex issue, they identify a general direction for reform efforts. They also feel that the political parties should be the prime movers in formulating and implementing changes.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This clearly written and convincingly-argued book provides a comprehensive and meticulous analysis of the problem of 'front-loading' in the United States." —Alan Siaroff, University of Lethbridge, Canada, Political Studies Review, 4/1/2005

"[the] book itself is a good general history of our current nomination system and its problems...its conclusions should be carefully considered by anyone interested in improving the quality of our nomination system." —David A. Crockett, Trinity University, Congress & the Presidency, 9/15/2006

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815755197
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 7/15/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

William G. Mayer is associate professor of political science at Northeastern University. His books include The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2004 (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Andrew E. Busch is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. He is the author of Outsiders and Openness in the Presidential Nominating System (University of Pittsburgh Press).

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Read an Excerpt

The Front-Loading Problem in Presidential Nominations

By William G. Mayer

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2003 William G. Mayer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0815755201

Chapter One


Of all the major institutions and processes in contemporary American government, few have been as consistently controversial as the presidential nomination process. The basic rules governing delegate selection and convention decisionmaking were completely rewritten in the early 1970s, and from the moment the "reforms" first took effect, they faced a firestorm of criticism. The new rules were attacked from almost every conceivable angle: for producing candidates who were ideological extremists or not very experienced or just plain mediocre; for weakening the parties and empowering the news media; for making nomination campaigns longer and more expensive; for producing convention delegates who were unrepresentative of the party rank and file; for conferring disproportionate power on Iowa and New Hampshire; for emphasizing campaigning over governing; for almost entirely excluding party leaders and top elected officials from the decisionmaking process; for undermining the support that a president could expect to receive from members of his own party within Congress and the executive branch; and for accentuating potential sources of party division and thus making it more difficult for the parties to present a united front in the general election.

Three decades later, most of these criticisms have receded from the front burner of American politics. In some cases, the problem was perhaps not as serious as it initially appeared to be. The charge that the system favored candidates who were ideological extremists, for example, seemed quite credible in the late 1970s, when the Democrats had just recently nominated George McGovern and the Republicans had almost denied their nomination to Gerald Ford, a conservative incumbent president, on the grounds that he was not conservative enough. By 2003, however, this criticism would probably strike most observers as preposterous. Whatever else may be said of a system that, over the past four election cycles, has nominated Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore on the Democratic side and George Bush, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush on the Republican, it can hardly be accused of fielding candidates who are extreme ideologues.

In other cases, the parties recognized the problem and took corrective action. There is little doubt, for example, that the new rules did lead to a sharp decline in the number of Democratic governors, senators, and representatives who served as national convention delegates. In 1982, however, the Democrats "reformed the reforms" by adding a rule that conferred automatic delegate status on a substantial number of party leaders and elected officials. And, sad to say, in a fair number of instances-such as the extraordinary length of the nomination campaign, the disproportionate power of Iowa and New Hampshire, and the troubling role of the news media-we have lived with the problem so long and found it so difficult to change that we have simply grown inured to it.

The subject of this book is a relative latecomer to the list of faults and derelictions, but by the final years of the twentieth century, it had emerged as perhaps the single most criticized feature of the entire process. Front-loading -the concentration of primaries and caucuses at the beginning of the delegate selection season-is what might be called a "second-order" effect of the new nomination rules. It did not become a major problem until the new system had been in operation for two or three election cycles and its basic tendencies and incentives had started to become apparent. Unfortunately, this also means that front-loading has probably not yet run its course. Whereas most other features of the contemporary nomination process have now reached a point of stability, there are strong reasons to think that front-loading will only get worse.

The rules of the presidential nomination process are, as a general matter, a pretty arcane subject, of some concern to the party officials who must write them and the campaign managers who must live under them but not especially interesting to anyone else. By the mid-1990s, however, a large number of political commentators and observers had taken notice of front-loading and, with a singular degree of unanimity, deplored its effects on the presidential selection process. In 1996 the system that resulted from front-loading was described as "madness," "insane," "warped and virtually mindless," "absurdly accelerated," "self-defeating," "debilitating," a "high-speed demolition derby," and a "parody of participatory democracy" in which "candidates have rushed through the country like passengers late for a connection." In 2000 various commentators called the nomination process "a sound-bite-saturated sprint," a "stampede," a "disaster for democracy," "absurd," a "mosh pit," "terrible," "dangerously irrational," a "mutant game of hopscotch," a "freight train," and a "crazy-quilt system" that produced a "lemming-like rush."

The writings of political pundits and newspaper editorial boards are not always the most reliable basis for constructing public policy. In this case, however, the criticism is on target. Front-loading has had a variety of undesirable effects on the presidential nomination process. It deprives many early primary voters of deliberate choice and late primary voters of any meaningful choice at all. It degrades campaign quality, gives an unreasonable advantage to front-runners, and substantially reduces the field of viable candidates before a single vote is cast. In short, it makes the presidential nomination process less rational, less flexible, and more chaotic. At a time of domestic challenge and international peril, these are risks the country can ill afford to take.

By 2000 both the Democrats and Republicans were concerned enough about the problem that each party established a commission whose principal assignment was to see whether something could be done to halt or reverse the front-loading trend. Nothing concrete came of these efforts, however. As the 2004 nomination race gets under way, the front-loading problem is still with us, fundamentally unchanged from the last time around.

The purpose of this book is to provide a comprehensive examination of the front-loading issue: what it is, why it developed, what consequences it has for the nomination process as a whole, and what, if anything, can be done about it.


Excerpted from The Front-Loading Problem in Presidential Nominations by William G. Mayer Copyright © 2003 by William G. Mayer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Introduction 1
Ch. 2 The Rise of Front-Loading 4
Ch. 3 Explaining Front-Loading 23
Ch. 4 The Consequences of Front-Loading 56
Ch. 5 Proposed Solutions 95
Ch. 6 The Politics of Nomination Reform 125
Ch. 7 Conclusion 153
App. A On Measuring Front-Loading 169
App. B Specification of the Regression Equations in Tables 3-4 and 3-5 172
App. C A Note on Delegate Counts 176
Notes 181
Index 217
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