The Smoked Filled Room: A Brief History Of Contested Conventions

A traveling carnival of candidates arrives in another town (and on another network) for a weekly debate more than a year before Election Day -- a schedule so mind-numbing that some candidates will now pass up debates and the free publicity that they provide. States jockey for ever-earlier positions on the presidential selection calendar -- playing a game of chicken, with the outcome barely averting pushing the first contest of 2012 back into 2011. Meanwhile, parties, candidates and SuperPACs collect billions in contributions, setting the stage for an unprecedented and unbelievably expensive barrage of campaign ads.

Is this any way to choose the leader of the world’s richest, most powerful nation?

The primary system intensifies many of the features of the political system that Americans routinely criticize in public opinion polls -- the pervasive influence of Big Money in expensive, endless campaigns, the excessive influence of ideologically extreme activists, the inability of public officials to make deals and broker compromise.  It’s enough to make people long for a return to an earlier era when party leaders, determined to find winning candidates, hashed out the nominees and their platforms. Could Americans bring back the “smoke-filled room" (doing without the cigars, the scotch, and all-male enclaves)?  Or is the primary system, like the Senate filibuster and Fourth of July firecrackers, a venerable American tradition that we’re simply stuck with, like it or not?

The primary system is no sainted legacy of the Founding Fathers, it’s a relative newcomer. Believe it or not, primaries did not decide the major party presidential nominations until the 1970s. As late as 1968, the race for the White House featured just 15 primaries selecting only 40 percent of convention delegates. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, and he didn’t run in a single primary!

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