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

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.

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.

Stirring, too, is another novel feature of the election, the first black candidate, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. He is flamboyant and hard to reckon. He has little chance of being elected. But he could bring a lot of minority voters to the primaries who might then cast ballots next November.

There are, in fact, two factors to watch. One is the number of voters who will stay away from the polls. Another is the high percentage of minority nonvoters: blacks, Hispanics, and some disadvantaged elements. Statistics tell an extraordinary story. In 1960, 64 percent of those eligible voted; in 1964, only 61.7 percent; in 1968, only 60.6 percent. In 1972 it was down to 55.6 percent. And four years ago it was 53.95 percent - the poorest turnout in three decades. (In Canada in 1980, 75.5 percent voted.)

This is a vast number of nonvoters. The total has gone down like a flight of stairs. A leader who could bring back the nonvoters and broker them into one party or another could play a big role in American public life.

It must be realized, too, that in the complicated American election process the Founding Fathers consciously distributed power to thwart a dictator. There is a difference between a candidate getting ''elected'' and getting a ''mandate.'' Ronald Reagan won in the 1980 election, but he did not get a majority in the House of Representatives; he had a party majority only the Senate. Franklin Roosevelt, by contrast, won both ''election'' and ''mandate'' in 1932 and in 1936, and enacted his revolutionary New Deal. Mandates in the form of ''landslides'' are rare. Woodrow Wilson got one in 1912, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Major governmental changes followed. The public rarely understands the connection.

In 1983-84 the public is upset because nobody in Washington balances the budget. But Mr. Reagan lacks the votes to do it his way, or Democrats to do it their way! ''Only twice in the entire generation since FDR's first election in 1932 - after the elections of 1946 and 1952,'' write political scientists Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky in their study, ''Presidential Elections,'' have the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

Speaking to reporters here recently, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige said of Mr. Reagan, ''He'll get reelected, and he'll get a mandate.'' But nobody knows. Newspapers next November may well splash ''Reagan wins!'' while real government control still remains vague in Washington. It is the only system of its kind. Much depends on whether the nonvoters vote. In 1980 some 77,966,000 eligible people did not vote, while only 35,484,000 voted for Carter and 43,904, 000 for Reagan.

Americans often feel they have the best system in the world. Prestigious students have doubts. ''The separation of powers is simply not operating as the Framers intended,'' says Donald L. Robinson, a Smith College professor. Is something wrong? The United States is ending the fiscal year with a budget deficit of some $200 billion and both parties blaming each other.

James L. Sundquist of the Brookings Institution calls the US system a ''clumsy apparatus.'' He says, ''The old dilemma of the separation of powers remains unresolved and . . . insoluble.''

He gives the customary academic shrug: ''The crisis of competence is endemic to the American government. The republic will survive, but its effective functioning, year in and year out, cannot be counted on. And nothing much can be done about it.''

James Bryce, 90 years ago, would nod his head. But obviously no modern US politician would accept that for a minute.

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