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Candidates for the presidency

`It can further be argued that the weakening of the ties between party and presidential candidate and the increased personalisation of the campaign has resulted in the election of candidates less able to govern once they have attained the presidential office. Personal responsibility has replaced party responsibility and the weakened links between the president and his party means that he is less able to rely upon the support of party colleagues in Congress and thus is less effective. As Broder & Robinson note, the U. S. has not had a true ‘party government’ president since Truman (cited by Reiter, 1985, p138).

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The absence of party unity between the executive and legislative branches of government has therefore often resulted in a ‘lame duck’ president, unable to effect reforms because he cannot count on the loyalty of party Congress members. `It should be remembered however that the role of parties has only been restricted not removed altogether and that certain reforms in the 1980s have seen a limited move to return some of the power lost by party leaderships.

For example, the Democratic Party introduced ‘superdelegates’, a measure which gave a proportion, approximately 15%, of convention votes to uncommitted party officials selected through party channels (Woll & Binstock, 1991, p218). The Republican Party leadership, by contrast, had always retained substantially more influence over the nomination than the Democrats. `A major defect of the current procedures used to choose presidential candidates is the impact that the media, and in particular television, has over the process.

As Woll & Binstock note, “primaries tend to benefit, in this television age, charismatic and stylish leaders with strong financial backing” (1991, p217). Media coverage of the primaries is extensive and television has become an increasingly vital medium through which candidates can project themselves. This has the undoubtedly negative effect of prohibiting those who can’t afford to advertise on television or participate in “the most expensive campaign in the world” from standing (Ragsdale, 1993, p100). Furthermore, the media has perhaps taken over the role of professional politicians in assessing candidates.

Through the extensive use of opinion polling and their own interpretations, journalists set arbitrary but well-publicised standards by which candidates are judged: 5% support nationwide being seen as the minimum level necessary to continue to stand whilst 15% is regarded as a ‘serious contender’ (Ragsdale, 1993, p101). Extensive television coverage would also seem to favour ‘televisual’ candidates – although Hess doubts this (1987, p81) – who do not necessarily make the most effective presidents once in office.

The length of the nominating process can also be attributed in part to the media which, as well as covering all the primaries, also carries extensive coverage of the pre-primary period. Thus the media must take responsibility for the fact that, for the candidates, the race to win the presidential nomination is “a demanding, exhausting, time-consuming and expensive ritual” (Woll & Binstock, 1991, p221). `The phenomenon of ‘frontloading’ can be attributed to the media interest in primaries and the powerful influence of its coverage.

Increasingly, states have tried to hold their primaries as early as state laws allow because the earlier primaries receive greatest media coverage and have a profound influence upon later primaries. The mid-1980s saw an overt effort by many of the southern states to move their contests forward and thus increase their influence (Ceasar, 1987, pp38-39). Currently, twenty states hold their delegate selections on the first Tuesday in March, so-called ‘Super Tuesday’ in order to try and gain maximum media coverage.

‘Frontloading’ occurs because of the present procedures for selecting presidential candidates; primaries being seen as exciting events, the candidates being engaged in a ‘horserace’. However, ‘frontloading’ is detrimental to the democratisation of the nomination process that was the intention of the reformers of the 1960s and early 1970s. The party members of small states such as Iowa and New Hampshire have a disproportionate influence.

As their contests take place first, their outcomes, and the spotlight placed on them by the media, will have a profound impact on the results of subsequent contests. `The belief that increased popular participation is undesirable has formed another criticism of the nominating procedures. Jeane Kirkpatrick, for example, argues that “a primary-dominant system, because primaries are more inclusive, is indiscriminate about who participates and careless about the choices being made for the party and the nation” (Crotty & Jackson, 1985, pp98-99).

It is suggested that direct primaries give more opportunity for party activists, who tend to be more ideological, issue-oriented and concerned for the short-term, to determine the nomination at the expense of party elites who would make the most rational choices upon consideration of the party and the public interest. Democracy is seen as resulting from competition between parties and not the extension of mass participation which leads to extremism. Therefore, this ‘restoration’ school advocates the returning of the power to choose presidential candidates to the party leaderships.


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