Turn the Nomination Process on Its Head

The current primary system of choosing presidential candidates has been a failure; it needs a radical overhaul

INCREASINGLY for 25 or 30 years now, the American people have directly selected their presidential candidates. But have the candidates directly chosen by the people been all that much better than the candidates that preceded them? The time has come to acknowledge that the primary system of direct selection is not the answer to electing better presidents.

Here's the outline of an alternative system that might be a much better way of selecting not only good candidates, but candidates the public would be happy with, who would not be viewed as just the lesser of a bunch of evils.

First, it might be useful to examine our present system of selecting presidential candidates by means of an analogy. Let's assume that you have some kind of ailment, some kind of serious physical symptoms that you are worried about. How should you get treatment? You might tell your friends and relatives about your concerns, describe the symptoms to them and ask them what they think is wrong with you.

After you have asked a number of friends, co-workers, relatives, and neighbors, you could narrow the ailments your friends diagnose down to the two that received the highest number of votes. You could then go to a doctor and tell him what you and your friends have concluded and that you want him to decide which one of the two you have and treat that disease.

Pretty crazy, isn't it? Consult all the novices and nonprofessionals, let them narrow it down to two choices, and then go to the professionals to pick and treat one of those two choices.

Well, that's not too different from the way we pick our presidential candidates. This year we had an essentially uninformed and often not-too-interested electorate narrow the Democratic field among Paul Tsongas, whom they never heard of before; Bill Clinton, who they understand smoked pot, slept with an aide, and ducked military service; Jerry Brown, who they knew was once governor of California; Bob Kerrey, whom they never heard of but who they understood got the Congressional Medal of Honor; and Tom Ha rkin, who is some kind of wild-eyed liberal from the farm country. This uninformed public opted for Clinton and now tells the party pros at the Democratic Party convention that they should pick him.

It is similar in the Republican Party. The public is unhappy with George Bush, but they decided they don't like Pat Buchanan either, and they tell the party pros at the Republican convention to select Bush - "the devil we know." There are our choices.

We should turn the selection process completely around. We might start with the two political conventions - in May for the out-of-power party and in June for the in-power party. Any potential candidate who wants the nomination would have to be a member of his party and would have to meet some kind of modest petition-signature threshold to preclude purely frivolous candidacies. Each candidate who passed the threshold test would then be allowed an hour's presentation at his or her party's political convent ion.

The presentations would be broadcast in prime time over national television. There could be two presentations each night with the order of presentation determined by lot. Each potential candidate would have one hour, would be the beneficiary of national television coverage, and would have direct and equal exposure both to the convention delegates and to the public.

Who would the convention delegates be? They would be political and party pros. That might include governors, senators, members of congress, mayors, other office holders, state chairmen, county chairmen, party workers - people who are involved in the political process and who would know a lot more about the candidates early in the campaign than the public would. And who would, presumably, also know a lot more about what qualifications and characteristics it takes to be elected and to be a good president.

After all the presentations had been made, the convention delegates would vote. Every candidate who received 10 percent or more of the total delegate votes would be automatically qualified - and Federally funded - to run in the subsequent national primaries.

To avoid delegates' cutting out a sterling candidate because he or she wasn't a party loyalist or just wasn't liked by the pros, any candidate who failed to get 10 percent of the vote would then have six weeks to gather X number of petition signatures in Y number of states. If the candidate had scored big with the public in the televised convention presentation, even if not with the party pros, this would be relatively easy to accomplish, and he or she, too, would be both qualified and funded to run in t he subsequent primaries.

In late July, the first of four national primaries would take place - national, not regional. Clinton should not have the advantage of having the first primary take place in the South; Tsongas should not have the advantage of having the first primary take place in the Northeast; Jerry Brown should not have the advantage of the first primary taking place in the West.

How would the national primaries work? All would-be candidates who qualified, either by reason of getting 10 percent or more of their convention's votes, or by reason of obtaining an adequate number of petition signatures subsequent to their failure to receive 10 percent of the delegate votes at the convention, would be eligible and funded to run in the first primary. They would have four to six weeks to campaign before the first primary would take place.

Those who fail to get, say, 10 percent of the votes in that first primary would be out. There would be three weeks more of national campaigning and the second primary would take place. Those who fail to get 20 percent of the votes in the second primary would be eliminated. Three weeks more of campaigning, the third primary, and those who fail to get 30 percent of the vote would be out. Three more weeks of campaigning, the final primary, and the winner of that primary would be the party's candidate.

By this time it would be early October, the campaign would have been going on since May or June, in a constant process of first qualifying, and then narrowing down. There would be just one month left to election day. The candidates in both parties would have been selected, with the pros making the initial choices, and the electorate narrowing and narrowing the field as it got better and better acquainted with the candidates. There would be no need for more than a month's final campaign between the two ca ndidates, for people would know them quite well by the end of the primary process.

Under this system a candidate's first hurdle would be to convince his party, not to circumvent it. It should also serve to increase public interest and turnout. All parts of the country would be instantly engaged by the nationally televised prime-time party conventions; and the first primary would be a truly national election (not an Iowa caucus or a New Hampshire primary).

More important, the roles of the public and the pros would be the correct roles, in proper sequence. The pros would enter the process at the point where they are best qualified to make the selections - at the beginning, before the public really knows these people. But there would be safeguards to prevent the pros from railroading the process. And the public would make increasingly important decisions, as they became better and better acquainted with the surviving candidates.

It would be like your going to a couple of doctors first to see what they thought your ailment was, and then letting you and your friends and relatives decide what is the best thing to do among the options and alternatives that the pros have put before you. That is the proper use of the experts - up front. That is the proper role for you, your family and friends - deciding what to do in light of what the experts have said.

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