Running for President Has Gotten Vastly More Complicated

In 1952, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower won the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary basically without trying.

He never set foot in the state to campaign. He wasn’t officially on the ballot; he won as a write-in – and beat all the party establishment on his way to capturing the White House.

Imagine that today, a world in which candidates begin visiting local diners and state fairs months in advance of the New Hampshire primary. The presidential nomination system of old was driven by party leaders guided by a small number of binding primaries and non-binding “beauty contest” votes.

In a session with National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows, Elaine Kamarck gave an overview of the ever-changing nomination sytem. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Kamarck (bio, Twitter) is author of the recent “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates its Presidential Candidates” (Amazon, Brookings).

Kamarck led fellows through the evolution of the primary system, which has gone from the smoke-filled rooms of party pols to one in which voters in every state have a say through primaries or caucuses. Kamarck detailed how reforms in the 1960s and 1970s greatly expanded the number of primaries and how states jostle to have their primaries – and their voters’ interests – go first.

Right now, Iowa and New Hampshire come first. Those early, small-state contests come before Super Tuesday and other multi-state days in which big states lay out their preferences.

Kamarck described why small, homogeneous Iowa and New Hampshire go first – basically because they care enough to fight to keep their status. And paradoxically, the importance of the small states has only been amplified by Super Tuesday, as the voters, media and donor class need somebody to winnow the field.

“Unlike in the old-fashioned system, sequence is strategy in the modern system,” Kamarck said. “There isn’t one election day – it starts in February and it ends in June. One race impacts the next one, which impacts the next one.”

She also described the evolution of superdelegates and why caucuses are disappearing (with the exception of Iowa’s).

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