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Why is the presidential nominating system such a mess?

Every four years, each major political party nominates someone to run for president of the United States. And every four years, new voters as well as those who have voted many times find themselves asking: why is the presidential nominating system such a mess? Who thought up this ridiculous system, which spans contests from February to June before a summer nominating convention? Why does every state seem to do it somewhat differently? Why don’t the states have their primaries on the same day? Why don’t states in the same region have primaries on the same day? What are delegates anyway? And do they even matter?

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, author Elaine Kamarck argues that there are many different ways to organize a presidential nominating system and almost all of them are more rational and orderly than the hodgepodge of systems that voters experience today. Kamarck provides an overview of some of the better, more rational systems, in her estimation.  Nevertheless, Kamarck argues that absent some sort of meltdown in the current process, a more rational system is not likely any time soon.

Whatever happens in 2016, the presidential nomination process will be a source of frustration and the object of criticism. Kamarck concludes that change in the nomination process will proceed in the only way that it has come in the past: through the complex interaction of presidential hopefuls (past and present) and the internecine struggles of party politics at the state and national levels and the legislative bodies both federal and state. But in the end, says Kamarck, anything is possible in a system that is as innovative and unpredictable as the country that produced it.

Editor’s Note: The following paper is adapted from the second edition of Elaine Kamarck’s Primary Politics, Brookings Press.

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