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How America goes about electing its presidents - the road to '84

By Richard L. StroutStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 1983


In 11 months America goes to the polls to pick its next president in what is probably the most important elective choice on earth. But so far the drama is proceeding according to rote. There have been complaints of how dull it all is. This paradox is made sharper because the stakes in the presidential selection process have increased steadily in a world where the tempo of change is accelerating.

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Ninety years ago, James Bryce, a British ambassador to Washington, made a critical observation about the presidential selection process in his classic study, ''The American Commonwealth.'' He entitled his eighth chapter: ''Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.'' And then he told readers: The US presidential nomination process is designed not primarily to choose candidates who will make great presidents but who will win elections.

''When the choice lies between a brilliant man and a safe man,'' he wrote, ''the safe man is preferred.'' Who had been president recently? - Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland. He declared: ''The ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity. . . . He likes his candidate to be sensible, vigorous, and, above all, what he calls 'magnetic.' . . . To a party it is more important that its nominee should be a good candidate than that he should turn out a good president.''

In the 11 months to the 1984 election it will be possible to test out these theories anew. The contest has proceeded much as usual. Washington (after some hesitation) has decided that President Reagan most likely will seek a second term. Undoubtedly he can have the Republican nomination if he wants it. He rates high in the opinion polls. At this point, too, the economy looks encouraging, and as this is written the Dow Jones industrial average is flirting once again with an all-time high. On the Democratic side there are now eight candidates, although the public is still learning their names. For them it's a critical time. Many voters are making a first transferral of interest from football to politics.

A Democratic front-runner has emerged, former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale, whose campaign is well financed and organized. His closest Democratic rival is Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, a former astronaut.

The great problem for a candidate is to get some name recognition and define his candidacy. Do it boldly and promptly or he or she won't get funds to keep afloat. A series of state caucuses and primaries lies right ahead on the calendar.

Back in 1976 Jimmy Carter won the New Hampshire primary (for which he had been preparing for months): It is true that he got only 29 percent of the vote ( 5 percent ahead of US Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona), but that victory made all the difference; pollsters and television crews seem only interested in winners. Now in this new race the procedure is unfolding as usual. The time has come for Mr. Glenn to define his position and sharpen his differences with Mr. Mondale. For the first time in history leaders of organized labor have decided in advance on a favorite candidate (Mondale) without waiting for formal nominations. Glenn is making countermoves. Here come other straw ballots - and candidates like Alan Cranston of California, Gary Hart of Colorado, and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina must convince their friends and financial backers that they are serious contenders.