This study incorporates three important themes into the study of presidential selection:
What are the international implications of how the Unites States chooses its presidents? How does the process affect other nations? Does it enhance or diminish the ability of the United States to deal effectively with the rest of the world?
How do the changing characteristics of the the presidential selection process affect the shaping of public policies, and vice versa? For example, how have changes in citizen participation, campaign technologies, and campaign finance laws altered the balance of political power among institutions and interests?
What is the influence of the Constitution on presidential selection, as in the prescribed qualifications for the office and in provisions for unusual circumstances?
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By Alexander Heard, Michael Nelson
Duke University PressCopyright © 1987 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Change and Stability in Choosing Presidents
ALEXANDER HEARD AND MICHAEL NELSON
For two decades politically active Americans have been preoccupied with proposals to change the way they choose their presidents. Substantial change actually has occurred. Actions taken by the parties radically modified the means of nominating candidates; offical actions by government spread the suffrage and altered campaign funding; and informal campaign practices evolved, some quickly and others gradually.
These essays address the significance of four recent and important trends in the presidential selection process and one continuing concern.
1. Changes have occurred in the world context in which American government is conducted.
2. The pools of volunteers who dominate American politics—voters, contributors, political activists, aspiring candidates, and officeholders— have been changing.
3. The structure and technologies of presidential campaigns also have been changing, as reflected recently in opinion sampling, campaign coordination and organization, and political finance.
4. Innovations in the mass media have always affected political processes, but never more so than recently.
5. The presidency can become vacant between Elections under many different circumstances. There is much disagreement about these possibilities and the potential consequences if any of them should arise.
The concerns, analyses, and proposals that appear here reflect the important attention that scholars are giving to the way Americans choose their presidents.
A New World Context
American presidential selection usually is studied as part of the unique set of circumstances, historical conditions, and traditions that constitute the United States. Comparisons are drawn between the present and previous eras. Is the modern system of Primaries and caucuses, for example, more or less democratic, more or less effective, more or less legitimate, than when national party conventions dominated the nominating process? Assessments of the influence of party organizations, the mass Media, interest groups, financial contributors, issues activists, and others ordinarily accept the traditional contours of American politics as fixed. Similarly, when proposals are made to reform presidential selection, often through changes in the constitutionally prescribed structure of the government, the normal frame of reference is past practice in the United States.
Our interest here is not to propose a new constitutional system. But we do wish to explore whether Americans can benefit from considering the effect of present selection procedures on American international relations, and also whether they can learn anything applicable to the United States from practices for choosing political leaders that are followed in other nations.
The issues, interests, and ambitions that animate American presidential Elections are primarily domestic, but the consequences are at least as important to the world as to the nation. On the great issues of war and peace, Ralf Dahrendorf observes in his essay on "Presidential Selection and Continuity in foreign Policy" that it is the president of the United States who is largely responsible for "whether the world lives in a climate of tension or of detente, of arms race or of disarmament talks." Similarly, Ernest May, in "Changing International Stakes in Presidential Selection," suggests that much of the international economy is dependent on presidential policies that, although vitally important to people outside the United States, are not controlled by them.
Both Dahrendorf and May discover obstacles to the responsible exercise of American military and financial power in presidential selection practices. Dahrendorf finds a potent tension between the imperatives of becoming president and those of being president: "Candidates for president are chosen and elected primarily for domestic reasons, yet once elected their most consequential responsibilities are in the international field." Electoral pressures may move a candidate to endorse a protectionist trade policy or to attack international agreements that offend certain groups—even at the risk of alienating allies and making all nations question the reliability of the United States as an actor in world affairs. "During the early primaries in particular," writes May, candidates "are often put questions by zealots who want to test the degree of commitment to their particular cause." Democrats in 1984, for example, outdid each other in pledging their fealty to such policies as a proposed "nuclear freeze" and the transfer of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. "Such performances make many Americans nervous," May observes. "Understandably, they make foreigners even more so."
Dahrendorf also regards the sheer volatility of presidential politics as unsettling in its international consequences. Because "the role of the presidency is supreme" in foreign policymaking, new presidents can bring rapid and dramatic changes in policy that are disturbing to others. Dahrendorf characterizes as "staggering" and "unbelievable" the dramatic swings in policy that have occurred in recent years. Control of the presidency has passed from Richard Nixon and his "cynical geopolitics" to Jimmy Carter's "moralism of a good partner," and then to Ronald Reagan's "new patriotism of a combination of missionary isolationism and crude power motives."
Yet Dahrendorf and May, despite full sensitivity to the difficulties to which the presidential selection process contributes, each find it, on balance, to be healthy. Prudence is the quality that foreigners most desire in American presidents, according to May, and prudence is what American Voters have given them. "Most of the time, the nominating process [has] winnowed out just about everyone whose approach was not careful, prudent, and risk-minimizing," he argues. "In instances in any way exceptional, the voters nearly always chose the more prudent-seeming candidate when the general election came around." Especially in the nuclear age, adds Dahrendorf, this desire for prudence has bound Americans and foreigners together, forging "an ultimate and unbreakable link between domestic and international affairs."
May, too, finds solace for the international community. "The American public that cares about foreign publics is very large and diverse, and it has been growing," he argues. Ethnic loyalties have always moved many Americans to political action in behalf of their ancestral homelands. But nowadays other influences are at work, and in a less sectarian way: the internationalization of American business, widespread foreign travel, and the broadening effects of higher education.
Although Dahrendorf and May, in their pleas for an international perspective on American presidential selection, are concerned about the interests of foreigners in the relationship between the selection process and the world, an American stake pervades this relationship as well. Presidents deal with the leaders of other nations on a host of economic and security issues. To the extent that their prior careers prepare or fail to prepare them for this task, the national interest presumably will prosper or suffer accordingly.
Richard Rose's study of the career backgrounds of post-World War II leaders, and contenders for leadership, in the United States, Great Britain, France, and West Germany, suggests a degree of pessimism. The title of his essay, "Learning to Govern or Learning to Campaign?," poses a question seemingly answered: in Western Europe the former, in the United States, the latter.
Rose finds that of the fourteen people who have been nominated by the two major political parties as candidates for president of the United States since 1945, almost all have been experienced electoral politicians, but only three (Dwight Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson, and Richard Nixon) could claim "significant prior knowledge" of national security issues. Still worse, no president in the postwar era has had any direct prior experience with economic policy, either in government or the private sector. In contrast, Rose shows that European prime ministers are much more likely to have spent time as ministers of foreign affairs, economic affairs, or both. Even if they have not, they typically have served in cabinets at whose meetings international issues were discussed frequently.
The differences Rose uncovers, more than anything else, manifest more fundamental and important differences between the American system and the parliamentary systems of Western Europe. Almost every aspect of politics and government in Western Europe is more institutionalized than in the United States—distinct party identities as compared to diffuse ones, unitary national governments in contrast to the three-branch, three-tiered American federal system, a mass Media more constrained by law and custom than in a First Amendment society, and more. Conspicuously, the highly patterned, structured Leadership selection processes of European democracies contrast sharply to the fluid, comparatively free-form set of activities by which American presidents are chosen.
Because the American presidential selection process is both complex and loosely structured, particular elements in it are much more likely to affect the overall character of leadership selection than in European countries. Campaign finance regulations, media practices, polling, and other details of electoral campaigning normally are not very influential in shaping and channeling political conflict in Western Europe. Americans, however, are required to expend great effort considering such matters. Not only does the fluidity and complexity of the process make the details consequential, but so does the great latitude for unintended consequences that arises from that fluidity and complexity because of the number of interconnections between the many elements of the process.
Volunteer Democracy: Voters and Candidates
The periodic encounters of two sets of volunteers are the essence of American democratic elections: voters seeking leadership and candidates wanting to supply it. The formal and informal rules that govern those voluntary efforts are important aspects of the presidential selection process that merit attention. To understand what kinds of people voluntarily seek office, and what kinds vote, is of great consequence.
Voters—in particular, the laws and procedures that govern their participation in elections—are Gary Orren's concern in "The Linkage of Policy to Participation." Orren finds American voters distinctive in some significant respects. In other democratic nations, citizens vote at a high rate. Moreover, nonvotersdo not differ substantially in their social characteristics from voters. In the United States, neither of these conditions obtains. Voter turnout in recent presidential elections typically has been 50 to 60 percent, and nonvoters are disproportionately poor, nonwhite, and less educated. Orren argues that such an unrepresentative electorate poses an organic issue in a system that relies on the electoral process to foster legitimacy, Representation, and Civic education. Even worse, the gap between the voting rates of high-status and low-status citizens has been widening in recent elections and nonvoting soon may become habitual for large numbers of people.
For American voters, participation in elections is almost entirely voluntary. Would-be presidential candidates not only must decide to seek their party's nomination, but face the important additional challenge of attaining the label "serious." What kinds of candidates succeed? Michael Nelson approaches this question in "Who Vies for President?" in the manner of Sherlock Holmes solving a case: "Eliminate the impossible and whatever is left, however improbable, is the answer."
The Constitution bars some people from consideration on the basis of age, nationality at birth, and length of residency. Although the reasons for these constitutional provisions may be archaic, and their effects sometimes unsettling (Henry Kissinger, born in Germany, could not have served as president even if, as secretary of state, the line of succession had reached him), the main constraints on would-be candidates for president are in the hearts and minds of voters. Nelson shows that, historically, the electorate's operative list of qualifications for the presidency has removed from consideration women, nonwhites, non-Christians, and bachelors. It also has stipulated that candidates have recent, prominent governmental experience if they are to be taken seriously, which in recent years has meant service as senator, governor, or vice president. But, Nelson indicates, other standards and prejudices that were important to voters in earlier periods, such as Protestantism, have been altered or abandoned, and changes in the current list may be occurring as well.
If Nelson's main concern is for the influence of the U.S. Constitution and American culture on presidential candidates, John Aldrich's is for the varying rules and procedures that the Democratic and Republican parties have used to stucture nominations for president. In "Methods and Actors: The Relationship of Processes to Candidates," Aldrich asks whether changes in party rules that have occurred during four historical eras since 1872 (the most recent beginning after the 1968 election) have altered the kinds of candidates selected by the parties and, later, by the Voters. In important respects, having mainly to do with the personal and political backgrounds of candidates, changes in rules apparently have made little difference. On the other hand, rule changes, especially more recent ones, have affected the kinds of campaigns candidates must wage to be successful, and therefore the political skills required of them. For example, "the need for public support induces a bias in the system that favors those who can best use the technology of public campaigning and who can invest the most and longest effort in campaigning."
Modern Campaign Elites
The number and representativeness of the voters who take part in selecting a country's leadership, and the quality of the candidates who are chosen, are important but not exclusive measures of the process. Also significant is how particular aspects of it shape political conflict in the larger system, affect the political agenda, and magnify or diminish the influence of various participants. Three essays give attention to, respectively, the actions of pollsters, party politicians, and interest groups as intermediaries between voters and candidates. Again, the comparison with Western European democracies is instructive. The British political scientist Dennis Kavanagh has observed that "in recent years candidate and issue factors have become much more important than political parties in deciding elections in the United States. We talk in Western Europe about a volatile electorate, but it is on a much smaller scale than has occurred in the United States.... [O]ne reason for this change in the United States is called the 'new polities'.... the mass media, advertising, opinion polls, public relations."
James Beniger and Robert Giuffra treat political Pollsters as a new campaign elite in their essay, "Public opinion Polling: Command and Control in Presidential Campaigns." The growing importance of polls in American politics is demonstrated, they show, by the fact that presidential candidates in recent elections have employed five different kinds of polls—benchmark, follow-up, panel, tracking, and focus—at nine different stages of the campaign—from deciding to run to monitoring daily fluctuations in opinion during the weeks before election day. The influence of pollsters has risen sharply: candidates use their interpretations of public opinion to help mold both the style and substance of campaigns. Inevitably, successful presidential candidates now maintain a close relationship with their pollsters while in office.
Excerpted from Presidential Selection by Alexander Heard, Michael Nelson. Copyright © 1987 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Change and Stability in Choosing Presidents / Alexander Heard and Michael Nelson 1
I. Presidential Selection in World Context
2. Presidential Selection and Continuity in Foreign Policy / Ralf Dahrendorf 15
3. Changing International Stakes in Presidential Selection / Ernest R. May 32
4. Learning to Govern or Learning to Campaign / Richard Rose 53
II. Voters and Candidates
5. The Linkage of Policy to Participation / Gary Orren 75
6. Who Vies for President? / Michael Nelson 120
7. Methods and Actors: The Relationship of Processes to Candidates / John H. Aldrich 155
III. New Campaign Elites
8. Public Opinion Polling: Command and Control in Presidential Campaigns / James R. Beniger and Robert J. Giuffra Jr. 189
9. The Three Campaigns for President / Herb Asher 216
10. Regulating Campaign Finances: Consequences for Interests and Institutions / Xandra Kayden 247
IV. Presidential Politics and the Mass Media
11. Presidential Politics and the Myth of Conciliation: The Case of 1980 / James David Barber 283
12. Television and Presidential Politics / Thomas E. Patterson 302
V. Provisions for the Unexpected
13. Presidential Selection and Succession in Special Situations / Allan P. Sindler 331
Editors and Contributors 411