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Federalism, Democracy and Presidential Elections

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Federalism, Democracy And Presidential Elections

Voting MachineOver at a blog this author reads regularly (and recommends, great theology, really cool comic graphics), Frank Turk’s …And His Ministers A Flame Of Fire, Frank has made the following observation

In spite of what some people have already said, the primary system in this country has evolved toward a democratic process and away from the idea that party elites should pick a candidate apart from an electoral process.

It’s interesting in what ways the Clintons want to take our nation back to 1820.

This post prompted me to do a quick review of the class I’m preparing for Camp American on the electoral college. This being an election year and all, I thought this would be a great advanced class for some of our young budding Christian constitutional scholars who already have a working knowledge of the documents. I took notice of two things from Frank’s post.

The first is Frank’s observation that the presidential election process has evolved toward a more democratic process for choosing a president and away from the constitutional republican representational process the founders designed. The second is that the current fight in the Democratic party with the Clinton team’s attempted manipulation of the so-called super-delegates is a throwback to the party structure of 1820. Frank’s a really smart guy and has a pretty good handle on the workings of the current political system but may not know the ins and outs of the original design and evolution of the current system for election of the chief executive. Such is the state of modern constitutional education that most people don’t know the details unless they make a special effort to learn the details.

Well that’s why we do Camp American, and why the Institute For Principled Policy is involved. In order to understand how we got where we are, we have to know where we started. The original design of the framers was for a representative federal republic. We emphasize the word federal because the current understanding of federalism is vastly different than it was in the late 18th century. To keep this from becoming a multi-post series in 500 parts, we’ll stick to the highlights of this issue.

The framers vision of the federal government’s design was built on the idea that the states, which were autonomous republics, delegated certain limited powers to the federal government for three specific purposes; defense, diplomacy, and trade. There are many implications of this structure, but one of the most important to understand that, as Dr. Thomas Woods has eloquently stated, under the system of federalism as it existed until about 1865 the only contact that the majority of citizens had with the federal government was with the post office. Under this system, the federal government was a creation of the states and therefore it was decided at the Constitutional Convention, after lengthy and hard-fought debate with numerous contradictory resolutions and several see-saw attempts at a solution to the problem of election of a president which ranged from popular election to election by state legislatures to election by the federal legislature, that an electoral college would be the method by which a president would be elected. The number of electors for each state is based on the number of senators (2) each state is allotted plus the number of federal representatives allotted to it by the census count. The method each state was to use to choose these electors was left to the states themselves with limited restrictions such as candidates for the office and federal office holders not being electors. The hope of the framers was that each congressional district in each individual state would be represented by an elector from that district who would represent the interests of the district. The two senatorial representatives, it was hoped, would be representatives of the state governments’ interests. It should be noted that this system was designed well before any political parties had been even conceived of.

In its original form, the electoral college in each state was to vote for two candidates from a slate of nominees. The list of nominees was chosen by the consensus of caucuses, usually regional, within the US House of Representatives. The top vote-getter who received a majority (not a plurality) of the electoral votes became the president. The second highest became vice-president. If no candidate got a majority of electoral votes then the top 5 vote-getters were presented to the House of Representatives who were to immediately cast a presidential ballot. If no candidate received a majority of votes then the legislature was to go into caucus by states with each state getting one vote. Voting continued until a president was elected. Growing factionalism and failed conspiratorial intrigue in the elections of 1796 and 1800 complete with an electoral crisis in the 1800 presidential election caused the introduction of the 12th amendment which dropped the number of candidates on the presidential slate if the election went to the House from 5 to 3 candidates and provided for a separate slate of vice-presidential candidates, leading to the current method of choosing a running-mate. Not only was this system not democratic, it was specifically designed to prevent organized majorities from overwhelming the interests of minority populations. One need only read The Federalist to understand that democracy was a form of government the framers feared and avoided.

In the beginning of the republic, most of the states chose presidential electors in their state legislatures. But by the election of 1836 the only state which still held to this method was South Carolina, which did not switch to a popular election of electors until the fateful 1860 election. Political parties did not really exist until after Washington’s first term. They were formed on the basis of several major issues; first, whether or not to get involved in the French Revolution and which faction to support. Second, constitutional interpretation of issues regarding a National Bank and “internal improvements” and presidential authority. Third, the roles of the federal government and the state governments and centralized authority. The Federalists under Hamilton wanted to abandon France, grow presidential authority and diminish the power of the states. The Democratic-Republicans under Jefferson wanted the opposite. What we now call parties were then only what Madison called “factions” because there were only guiding philosophies and no official organizations or platforms until Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren hammered together the Democratic Party from their faction of the old Democratic-Republican’s in the 1828 election. The other faction became the Whigs, the Federalists having committed political suicide in 1816 leaving a single party. From the election of 1796 until the election of 1832 candidates for president were chosen by party caucus alone. After a revolt of newer western party members in the election of 1824 where they rejected the party’s nominee in favor of Andrew Jackson, the party convention system was developed. Convention delegates were chosen by party caucuses in the individual states.

This system of presidential nominations, delegates to national conventions chosen in local and state party caucuses, continued relatively unchanged through the 19th century into the so-called Progressive era. In 1910(!) Oregon held the first presidential primary that bound delegates to a specific candidate at the 1912 national party conventions. Interestingly, this humble beginning led to a split in the Republican party in the 1912 election. Former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was an overwhelming favorite in the tiny number of states with a primary election, but sitting Republican president William Howard Taft held the nomination from the vast majority of delegates chosen in party caucus and because most primaries were non-binding. Really just beauty contests, if you will. Hence, the Bull Moose or more correctly the Progressive Party split from the Republicans with TR at the helm which eventually finished second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Taft was a distant third. Interestingly, only a few states adopted the primary system, even after this.

By 1968 only 14 states used the binding primary election or some variation of it. Interestingly 1968 was the last election where a candidate controlled a convention with no primary victories. Hubert Humphrey was the candidate. He won no primaries because he didn’t run in any. Anyone over 50 should clearly remember the events of the summer of 1968 with the Chicago Democratic Convention. Thus, the founders’ fear of direct democracy was born out and we were treated to both a revolutionary vanguard and a police riot over a brokered political convention. Perfect direct democracy leading to anarchy, just as Madison feared. The spirit of a constitutionally limited representationally elected republican (note small “R”) chief executive, elected to serve in a federal government which was constrained from interference in the lives of the individual, gradually became weaker and sicker throughout the 19th century, became comatose in the Progressive era and died in the summer of 1968.

After 1968 the number of primaries exploded, most states using some form of the binding primary. In the spirit of “democracy,” slowly but surely, discontent has grown with the idea that small rural states like Iowa and New Hampshire can set the electoral tone of the whole primary race for the whole country. Several states have worked to develop schemes to have their own states be in the first tier, some scheming to knock New Hampshire out as the earliest primary, a position most are surprised to learn it has held only since 1952. Now, after the Michigan and Florida debacles of this election cycle, the parties are clamoring for some kind of federal fix of the primary system, a power they do not constitutionally possess. Remember that the original republican design was for the states to choose how the chief executive was to be elected.

Now we are beginning to see, with the current cycle especially, the compression of the time available to make a choice for who should be the President. As this trend grows, candidates spend more and more money on media, consultants and staff, talk in shorter and shorter sound bytes, designed by advisers to have the highest positive emotional impact on subjects that the media has been working for months or years to create a particular kind of popular “buzz.” Candidate sound bytes need not necessarily contain any real intellectual content, nor does it necessarily need to cohere with the candidates stated policy positions. No need to contact the brain if the heart can be touched properly. Candidates who are the best media manipulators in appealing to their target audiences, end up in the lead. Those who have the resources dig for dirt on their opponents, knowing that the popular wind can shift in an instant if the right kind of scandal can be found and the media gatekeepers allow its use.

So, I think I can safely conclude that Frank’s timetable is off somewhat. The Clintons are not trying to revisit the politics of 1820, where the republican spirit was still quite alive, though it had caught a chill and the first signs of fever had set in, but back to the halcyon days of 1968, when a candidate didn’t have to win primaries to get a party’s nomination, but could manipulate the masses with blatant emotional appeals to the progressive dream of forcible redistribution of wealth in a completely egalitarian utopia in attempting to grab their party’s nomination. In other words, they’re trying to be the best possible democrats (note small “D”).

Warning! Blatant plug follows

If you want your kids to understand the original intent of the Constitution, the Christian origins of the nation’s foundational documents, economics, the truth about global warming and biblical stewardship of resources, have fun and meet new friends, check out Camp American.

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