The History of the U.S. Presidential Election Process: Lessons Moving Forward

Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Adrees Latif/Reuters
Benjamin Ginsberg

Partner, Jones Day

Elaine C. Kamarck

Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution

Gerald F. Seib

Washington Bureau Chief, Wall Street Journal

Samuel H. Feist

Washington Bureau Chief and Senior Vice President, CNN

Benjamin Ginsberg, partner at Jones Day, Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Jerry Seib, Washington bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, join CNN’s Washington bureau chief and senior vice president Samuel H. Feist to discuss the history and development of the U.S. presidential nominating process. The panelists discuss primaries, caucuses, and conventions, and whether the process should be changed.

FEIST: Good afternoon. Welcome. I am sure that you all know that eight weeks from today—two months—we will elect the 45th president of the United States. So, to mark the occasion, this moment, we’ve brought together a panel who are truly experts in how America chooses the commander in chief. So this will be a little bit of a different conversation for the—for the Council on Foreign Relations.

First of all, I’ll introduce our group. Jerry Seib, to my right, is the Washington Bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. If you can believe it, he’s celebrating his—you want to say how many years?

SEIB: No, I don’t want to say, actually. (Laughs, laughter.)


SEIB: It’ll become—it’ll become obvious over time. (Laughter.)

FEIST: Second or third—second or third year or decade with The Wall Street Journal.

SEIB: The Eisenhower campaign was fascinating. (Laughter.)

FEIST: He started when he was seven. Jerry and his team, among other things, have won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He’s not only the leader of the Journal’s outstanding Washington Bureau and coverage, but is also a contributor: his excellent weekly column, “Capital Journal.”

Elaine Kamarck is the senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. She worked directly on improving our government as the chief of President Clinton’s Reinventing Government initiative. She also has served, as far as elections go, in the DNC Rules Committee since 1997, so she knows a thing or two about what political parties do and whether things could be done differently or better. So we’ll certainly talk about that.

Finally, Ben Ginsberg is a partner with the Jones Day law firm, one of the most respected election law experts in the country, called on by Republicans at all levels of American politics. Well-known, of course, for his work in the 2000 Florida recount, helping then-Governor and later President George W. Bush. Was also counsel to both Romney campaigns and, among other things, was Governor Romney’s principal debate negotiator, a time when Ben and I got to know each other rather well. (Laughter.)

I’m Sam Feist. I’m the Washington Bureau chief for CNN.

So thank you for joining us. We will start with a conversation about how to improve America’s elections, lessons learned. We’ll have a conversation up here for about a half an hour, and then around 1:00 take questions from all of you. So look for the microphone and start thinking of your questions. This question is on the record and is also streaming live.

So, what better group to discuss U.S. elections than the one we have here? I want to start with a note. A CNN/ORC poll that came out this summer said that 57 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with their presidential nominees. Ben, how is it that the world’s greatest democracy has chosen nominees that the majority of Americans are dissatisfied? What is it about our system that led us to this point?

GINSBERG: Can I blame the news media?

FEIST: You can. (Laughter.)

GINSBERG: Not really.

So I think there are probably two parallel things going on. One is a general polarization in our political discourse on all levels of government, in sort of the way we live, the sort of self-segregation of our housing patterns. The breakup of the Democratic Party, the Solid South, created all sorts of fissures and changes in the way our elections ended up voting. That’s been a constant source of turmoil. I think the political parties, which have been the central galvanizing force, have declined in strength and allowed sort of not clear-cut ideological choices, but really candidates who can generate things on their own more and more to rise to the top. I think we’ve got some rules that we’ll talk about that govern the way both the Democrats and Republicans choose their candidates that probably are not terribly contemporary. So it is the general yeasty mix of the United States and really the world today that ended up with two primary processes in each party that were really unique in the ones that we’ve—that we’ve had.

FEIST: Is it unique, Jerry? In your three years or three decades covering American politics, does this election feel different than all of the others—the level of dissatisfaction different than all the others? Or is it not as far outside of the range of normal as we think?

SEIB: Well, I mean, it’s different in every way. I mean, I don’t think there’s any—I can’t think of anything to compare. I always tell people, the first—and I will date myself here—the first campaign I covered was 1980. I was, as you say, seven. But it—that was in some ways I thought the most important one because it actually produced a kind of a realignment of the country, and the South went Republican—started moving in that direction, or finished moving in that direction, and so forth. 2008 was both fascinating, because, you know, Barack Obama broke the ceiling. This is the hardest one to predict. I mean, nothing is like what we’ve seen before.

I do think that it comes in the midst of an environment in which public attitudes toward institutions of every variety are on the decline, and so politics is just either the leading edge of that or is just part of that. I think a big factor in the unhappiness with the candidates is an unhappiness with the system. I think a big factor that explains the unhappiness with the system is what happens or doesn’t happen in this town. And I mean, over the last 10 years or so, this place has stopped working. It has made people cynical about Washington and politics in general, and has made the establishment the enemy.

And so, you know, you have Donald Trump, who’s—you know, who succeeded because he’s a very abrasive personality in many ways, and that turns off a lot of people. And you have Hillary Clinton, who succeeded because she’s part of the establishment that they hate. And so they see something to dislike on both fronts. And I think it is in keeping with the national mood in general.

FEIST: All right. So before we get into some of the rules that you mentioned, Ben, Elaine, I want to talk to you in a—in a sort of a historical context. It has not always been this way. Think back to—think about the 1860 Republican Convention for a moment in that it nominated—it was a crazy moment that nominated one of our greatest presidents. It was raucous. It was a convention of elites. There were no primaries. There were no caucuses. And yet, it led to Abraham Lincoln. That was the system. Now—that’s not the system we have now. So what happened in between?

KAMARCK: Well, it did also lead to a Civil War—(laughs, laughter)—so.

Look, I think the way to understand this is, from 1832, when they killed the caucus—we used to nominate presidential candidates in the congressional caucus. So we had at the very beginning of the republic a kind of parliamentary system, really. That we got rid of between basically 1824, the corrupt election, and 1831 was the first nominating convention.

From 1831 and 1832 all the way up until 1972, our presidential candidates were nominated essentially by their peers. They were nominated by other actors in the political system. And, you know, sometimes we got great candidates. We got—

FEIST: Basically, all superdelegates.

KAMARCK: It was all superdelegates. It was pure superdelegates. That’s the only people there. Sometimes they did a really good job, and we got Roosevelts and we got Eisenhowers, et cetera. And sometimes they didn’t do such a good job because they couldn’t come to a consensus. But they always nominated somebody who was part and parcel of that party. That was the important criteria. I mean, if you were going to bear the label of the party, you had to have been a part of that party for a long time.

Come 1972, the Democrats changed their rules, for many good reasons. And the unanticipated consequence of this was, in fact, that by 2016 we see a nomination process where the institutional party has no power and you get basically outsiders to the party in the case of Trump capturing the nomination, in the case of Sanders coming very close to capturing the nomination. Neither one of them would have been possibly nominated under the old system, OK?

And so the danger to this system—and I think the Europeans, all the appalled people around the world looking at this system and the Americans who are unhappy with this—the danger with this system is it’s anything goes. You can be a celebrity and become the nominee of the party. There is no peer review. There is nobody sitting down and asking you what would you do.

Now, let me give you just one short example. Governor Lawrence of Pennsylvania was the governor in 1959-1960. He controlled all the delegates from the Pennsylvania—from Pennsylvania to the Democratic Convention. Jack Kennedy had to work really, really hard to get Governor Lawrence’s delegation, and that was conducted through a series of, yes, proving a little bit that he could win in primaries, but you know, there was a lot of smoke-filled rooms, et cetera.

Imagine Donald Trump going in to Governor Lawrence in that smoke-filled room and saying I’m going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Governor Lawrence would say, what the F are you talking about, right? I mean, he’s another politician. He’s a governor, right?

So that element of peer review is missing from the current process. And I think it’s very dangerous.

FEIST: Of course, that’s what—

SEIB: Well, and I—you could—I would underscore that point by noting that Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat.


SEIB: You know, he has spent his entire live not being a Democrat, and nonetheless almost won the nomination. And it was fascinating to be at the convention in Philadelphia to listen to the Sanders supporters express this outrage at how their party had mistreated their candidate, who is not even a Democrat. And I think Donald Trump has spent more time in the last 25 years as either an independent or a registered Democrat than he has as a registered Republican.

FEIST: So, Ben, defend the old system or the current system. Which is the—which is the right model? What’s good and bad of the—of the back rooms from years past versus the chaotic primary/caucus process that we sort of have now?

GINSBERG: I think it is fair to say that as much as each of us would welcome a return to the—to the old days, it doesn’t work today. I mean, part of what we’ve been talking about is the weakening of all institutions. And that is in part because of sort of a popular uprising against it. And I suspect that if the smoke-filled rooms return today to actually pick our nominees, in fact, there would be third-party candidates, a viable third-party candidate, which there isn’t even in this year with the great dissatisfaction amongst these candidates. So the system of not having strong institutions to be able to guide the hand of nomination, especially in the Republican Party more than the superdelegates of the Democratic Party, is really a reflection of the times.

FEIST: So you don’t want superdelegates in the Republican Party? Or you don’t think that would help stabilize?

GINSBERG: I believe that my wants on this are, like, not to be found amongst the 168 members of the RNC or the 25 million Republican primary voters.

FEIST: Do you think that—but do you think that it would—that the system would work better—you’re outside the party structure, unlike our other two colleagues—if the—I mean, the Republican Party, the—it’s entirely up to the state parties to create their own system, to create—to develop whatever mechanism they want. You know, they had a caucuses, they had primaries. Some states had—Colorado had almost nothing this year. To—some way that the party elders can have a voice in that? Or is that—is Ben right, there’s no way the public would accept it?

SEIB: Well, I think—

FEIST: And then Trump would—Trump or the next Trump would say it’s rigged.

SEIB: I think that horse is too far out of the barn at this point. Which is not to say that the system we have makes any sense. I mean, nobody in his right mind would sit down with a blank sheet of papers and draw up a primary-and-caucus system to match the one we have today. It’s insane.

But I do think that this is, in a—in this kind of democracy—unlike, say, in a European parliamentary system—the only way that you can really change the way the establishment works is to rise up from within one of the—within one of the existing parties. You can’t—it’s not a parliamentary system where you can say, well, I’m just going to break out of here and start a new party, win a few seats in parliament, and you’re on your way. That’s not how it works. So the insurrections have to come from within, and they have to come from within the existing primary system.

You know, I think the sensible conversation—but it’s been going on for probably as long as any of us has been around—is to come up with a more sane primary system. You know, four regional primaries, for example, has been suggested. Or a calendar that actually makes sense. We got a little closer this year in the sense that some of the big states—you know, California, for example—almost mattered, you know. And it’s insane to have a primary system in which the largest and most important states economically in the country don’t make any difference in the primary system. But I think you have to reform the primary system, not think of an alternative to it.

FEIST: You spend a lot of time working—designing and working on the rules of the Democratic Party. First, will the—could the Democratic Party—or can you imagine by 2020 the Democratic Party would change along the lines of something that Jerry suggested? And, second, Bernie Sanders—albeit not a Democrat, but still an outsider—did say the system was rigged because of the superdelegates. Offer a defense of them, if you will.

KAMARCK: The superdelegates—(laughs)—superdelegates are deemed by the Democratic National Committee. Half of the superdelegates are Democratic National Committee members. They are not going to vote to unseat themselves, period, end of sentence. (Laughs.)

FEIST: But are they—but are they good for the process, outside of the personal interests of the superdelegates?

KAMARCK: Yes. Oh, I think they—I think they are because they were born out of the 1980 convention—which was, for those of you who can remember, was a really, really tough convention where Senator Kennedy challenged President Carter. And what people realized is that, here at this moment of great strife in the party, the Senate—senators were missing, governors were missing, congressmen were missing, and state party chairmen were missing. The reason they were missing is, under the new rules, you had to run against your constituents. Well, members of Congress were not going to run against their constituents to be delegates to the convention, so they didn’t come. And after that, there was a feeling within the party that the leadership of the party needed to be at the convention, and that the only way to get them there was to make them basically ex officio—you know, automatic delegates. That has been the case since 1984.

FEIST: It’s interesting there were an awful lot of Republican officeholders who were not at the Republican Convention.

GINSBERG: No, and who weren’t getting elected as delegates from their state. I mean, it’s a—it’s a fundamental difference today because of sort of the history. Republicans never quite had as raucous a convention as you had in 1980. There’s always been a great opposition on the Republican National Committee to the creation of superdelegates, although the Republican National Committee, all 168 members, does make themselves automatic delegates—

KAMARCK: They are, right. (Laughs.)

GINSBERG: —to the convention. But not—

KAMARCK: And, hence, why they will survive. (Laughs.)

GINSBERG: But cannot—but cannot, for the most part, determine who they vote for.

KAMARCK: Yeah, that’s right. That’s the difference.

GINSBERG: They are subject—they’re subject to the votes in their states. But that’s just kind of a fundamental difference in the parties, I think.

FEIST: Before we move on to the general election, of course, which we’ll talk about in a moment—the rest of the world also scratches its head at how we choose our president in the second part of the campaign—are there any prescriptions that the three of you have to fix the primary system so that, four years from now, at the end of the conventions, the country says, you know what, we’re satisfied with our choices; I may not agree with everything he or she says, but one of them is going to be a good president, and let’s go forward and we’ll pick the best—that we’ve nominated two of the best people we could nominate?

KAMARCK: I don’t exactly know how to do it, but I agree with Ben that we can’t turn back the clock. There are a variety of ways, however, of limiting access to the ballot. Massachusetts and New Mexico have such things, where if you don’t get a certain threshold at the state convention you—it’s not that you’re automatically off the ballot, but then you have to petition to get onto the ballot, OK? So there are systems like that that are a little bit of a screening system.

FEIST: So we don’t end up with 19 candidates on the ballot?

KAMARCK: Yeah, so you don’t end up—there’s a little bit of a screening.

But the other thing is, look, primary turnout has to increase. Primary turnout—primaries at the presidential, but especially at the congressional level—and this is a major cause of polarization—primaries have extraordinarily small electorates. And that attracts left-wingers and right-wingers, depending on the party. And so a major cause of polarization in this country has been that the real elections in the country are primaries, not the general election. And until we figure out a way to get more people voting in primaries—maybe it’s regional primaries, maybe it’s a national primary, maybe it’s a national congressional primary—until we get primary turnout up, primaries are always going to be vulnerable to celebrities, to Hulk Hogan. I mean, who’s the next one, right? “Duck Dynasty,” is that the next candidate of a major party?

GINSBERG: Sam Feist.


GINSBERG: Sam Feist. (Laughter.)

KAMARCK: Sam Feist, OK. (Laughs.) That would be better. (Laughter.)

GINSBERG: Look, the primary process took place over 19 weeks. And no campaign—no campaign in either party can afford to actually organize over the course of 19 weeks in all the states, so you end up picking and choosing. It may be that what Jerry mentioned before—four regional primaries or something like that—is a way to at least focus attention on a finite number of states so you do increase voter turnout that way.

SEIB: I would just add two points. They’re different, but I think both worth noting.

One thing we have walked past is an important primary question, which is open primaries versus closed primaries. I mean, this was a big issue in the Republican Party this year. If you want the party as it’s defined today to have a bigger voice, you have a closed primary where you actually have to be a Republican before you vote in the Republican primary, as opposed to walk in and decide I’m for Donald Trump, I’m voting as a Republican today. But that’s a choice that 50 different states have to make in their own unique way. So—

FEIST: And of course, the pushback on that is that people who are hoping to have a general election candidate who can win, doesn’t necessarily want to get the most conservative, in the case of the Republican Party, or the most liberal in the case of the Democratic nominee because they might not be able to win.

GINSBERG: There was talk for inexplicable reasons about mandating closed primaries through the national party rules this time. And that’ll end up being a fight, I think, in four years, most likely.

SEIB: The second point I’d make, and I just will quickly underscore something Elaine said, which is that the focus on the presidential campaign kind of misses what I think is the real—the real problem in the system right now, which is that, as you suggest, the House of Representatives is full of people who by and large don’t have to worry about being defeated by the other party. They are in gerrymandered districts where the only thing they have to worry about is being defeated in a primary by somebody who outflanks them on the left or the right, which produces a voting pattern in the House in which, if you want to be safe, don’t move to the center, move to the wings. That is why this, more than—I think more than any single factor, that’s why this town doesn’t work right.

FEIST: Well, the Supreme Court has said that that’s perfectly OK, and there’s no person better at giving advice on how to write those—

SEIB: Ben’s going to disagree with me.

GINSBERG: I am going to disagree.

FEIST: —how to make those districts than Ben Ginsberg.

GINSBERG: Well, we named our family dog Gerrymander, so I come at this with a certain—(laughter).

Look, the truth is, over the last 40 years, the way we live is much more with people like ourselves—“The Big Sort,” the Bill Bishop book out of Texas—so that the communities in which we naturally live now are filled up with homogeneous people. There is a very—the number of sort of suburbs that had—that were—that were truly integrated and mixed with different types of people exist much less.

Jerry makes a point about the polarization in the House. But frankly, polarization in the Senate is just about as great as it is in the House, and there are no gerrymandered districts. And President Obama, in winning reelection in 2012, won 35 of the 39 largest metropolitan areas and lost the rest of the country. So that is a—that is not the drawing of the particular districts, that’s more in overall society.

And what representatives do is there are mixed motives when they—(laughs)—

KAMARCK: Yes. (Laughs.)

GINSBERG: —when they go to draw districts. Some can honestly make the case that you do want coherent communities, all coherent communities, represented somehow in Congress. So, if you start trying to draw politically competitive districts within that, you’re going to break up the cohesion of communities for a politically much messier Congress. So it is a debate we are likely to have for quite a while.

FEIST: I would love to talk about gerrymandering, and I have my own views about this.

GINSBERG: Oh, you have no idea.

FEIST: But I want to talk about the general election before we move on to questions. And, of course, the piece of electing the American president that most of the world has no comprehension of, and even much of our country, is the Electoral College. So here we are, two months to the day from Election Day. The candidates will not set foot in the majority of states between now and Election Day unless they’re raising money in California. Hillary Clinton doesn’t need to go to California. They don’t need to go to Texas. They don’t need to go to the—to many of the—

KAMARCK: Massachusetts.

FEIST: Massachusetts and beyond, because we know how the Electoral College works, the results in those states are presumed, and so don’t bother with those states. Has the Electoral College outlived its usefulness? Or is the purpose of the Electoral College, as constructed by the framers, actually working?

KAMARCK: I think, as constructed by the framers, it’s actually working because, after all, the reason we have the Electoral College is to protect small states. (Laughs.) I mean, that’s what—that was the deal the framers had to cut to get—to get the Constitution set up, is they had to protect the small states versus the big states. In those days, the big states were Massachusetts and Virginia, OK, and they had to protect everybody else.

Now, the irony of this is that, if we try to amend the Constitution to get rid of it, guess what? The small states—(laughs)—might do the same thing again. They have outsized representation in the Electoral College. Wyoming, with its three Electoral College votes, OK, has—every elector in Wyoming has very, very much fewer people than each elector in California or New York. You can go on the internet and you can see various maps of the United States that show the distortion. The distortion is huge, and I think that it has made the Electoral College—therefore, it has become a—had made our presidential elections a place where, you know, the biggest states get ignored.

FEIST: So, can you imagine, Jerry, is this going to—is this going to change? Will we see—there are some proposals for solving for the Electoral College problem without amending the Constitution, and Ben could go through, I think, and can detail them for us. But can you imagine it changing? Should it change? Does the country care? I mean, in 2000, we saw George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote after Ben worked his magic in Florida, but he did not win the popular vote.

SEIB: Well, look, I mean, the complaint is that candidates, as you suggest, spend all their time, particularly in the stretch run, in seven to 10 swing states. If you got rid of the Electoral College, they’d spend all their time in seven to 10 big states. So you’d have the same kind of problem, basically, because that’s where all the votes would be, right? So you’d go to California and Texas, and you would never show up in—


SEIB: —you know, in New Hampshire and Iowa, right? So you got a problem either way.

I will—I will simply observe—

FEIST: Although at least the voters in Wyoming who might vote—might be inclined to vote for a Democrat, however many there are, their vote would matter.

SEIB: Well, but you could also argue, if Republicans want California to matter, maybe they ought to go out there and figure out a way to make California more Republican.

GINSBERG: Shocking. (Laughter.)

SEIB: Just saying.

KAMARCK: Yeah, good luck. (Laughs.)

SEIB: Pete Wilson did that in for you for a while.

But anyway, the only other point I would make is that, you know, the—it’s interesting, having observed this for numerous cycles now, that the national vote—the national vote, as you can see it in polls, tends to—the movement in the big swing states tends to mirror that. So it’s not like they’re going this direction and the national vote is going in that direction. If you know what’s happening in the national vote, you probably have a pretty good idea of what’s happening in the vote in Ohio and in Florida. So they’re not totally disconnected. They’re big—the swing states are big enough and broad enough in their demographics that they kind of reflect the national vote anyway.

FEIST: But does it matter, if you live in California, you know that your vote, or you believe your vote doesn’t count? Does it—does that matter? Does it matter to the democracy?

GINSBERG: Well, look, participatory democracy is as much participating as it is like getting into existential discussions about whether your vote—your vote counts. I mean, look, the question about the Electoral College is like a textbook of how difficult it is to change something that’s been around for 260 years. And even if—even if all the bright minds in the country were to agree on a—on a new form of choosing a president, there would still be winners and losers as you made that change, and so people are going to object.

One other one I’d throw out there is that, at least in the swing states, candidates have to go in and go to smaller communities. If you had just the popular vote, you would have everyone campaigning only in urban and suburban areas with large populations, and all rural populations would get forgotten. In Pennsylvania, the candidates are still buying time in Harrisburg and Allentown and Erie and places like that. And that would be absent, should you change it.

FEIST: All right, so we’re going to take questions. And as you—and we’ll get the microphone. I just want to, as we get ready for that, ask Jerry—tip our hat to the fact that we are the Council on Foreign Relations. You’ve spent some time in Europe recently. What does the rest of the world, in your opinion, think of what’s going on over here? (Laughter.)

SEIB: Well, I mean, I didn’t spend enough time to answer that question, really at all. I will say that, you know, we were in Paris for a few days. Got in a cab. The cab driver figured out my wife and I were Americans. And he looked back and he said: Trump, catastrophe! (Laughter.) So it’s everywhere. And the reason I was there was there’s so much interest in this election that the Journal was doing a whole series of election events like this in Europe, and in Asia, and around the country, because the fascinating is off the charts.

FEIST: All right. Where is the microphone? We’ll start right here, sir, and then we’ll go around the room.

Q: Thank you very much. I’m Hani Findakly, the Clinton Group.

I want to focus on the issue of polarization. And the narrative that seems to be driving it is how bad the economy is, listening to Trump, how terrible things are. And I see some kind of a disconnect between reality and perception. And the perception is that things are pretty bad. And the reality is that the U.S. economy is doing very well, both in relative terms to the rest of the world and in absolute terms.

We’re the largest energy producer today. We’re importing less oil than we have 40, 45 years. The dollar reigns king. Unemployment today is the lowest we’ve had in 15 years. And today, if you look at the news, median income, which has been stagnating for quite a bit of time, since the 1980s actually, has risen to the highest level ever—both median and average income. Now, this may not be completely, and there are a lot of explanations for it, but there is a perception that things are pretty bad. And things don’t look as bad as they are. So what’s driving that narrative? And why is it that even the Democrats, you know, including President Obama himself, is not defending his record?

FEIST: Ben, why don’t you take that. He’s your nominee.

GINSBERG: But Jerry’s got some stats there.

FEIST: OK, Jerry then.

SEIB: Well, I figured this would come up. So here’s the thing. So it is correct that today—and this is the best news Hillary Clinton’s had in a week of no good news. So the Census Bureau reported today that median household income rose 5.2 percent last year from the previous year, after adjusting for inflation, which is great. But that means that household incomes—median household incomes still, after that, are 1.6 percent below the 2007 level. That is to say in nine years they’ve gone down. If you look at household net worth, how much money do you have in the bank not how much did you earn, you find the same thing. It’s the median household net worth is still below where it was in 2007.

So I think there’s a legitimate issue here. People got whacked in the Great Recession of 2008. They know it. And they are not incorrect to think we’ve never really recovered from that. And that’s nine long years of being dissatisfied. So it’s true that if you look at the trend lines they look pretty good. But if you look at the absolutes, and you step back and look at the longer term, it’s not that great.

FEIST: But, Ben, isn’t also a piece of it that the candidate who is the outsider candidate—in this case, the candidate who represents the part who is not currently in power—in challenging the nominee and her party is always going to talk down the economy created by the current president?

GINSBERG: And how you can—and how you can make it better. I mean, the whole discussion of polarization is many, many, many sessions. But to sort of sum it up, there is, in our politics, a premium in pointing out how you can do better. And implicit in that is why the other guy’s not doing well now, and why things aren’t so great. It’s also true that most people took promises from the Bush administration about shrinking the size and the role of government not really met. And people took a lot of the hope and promise of an Obama administration, and you’ve read a whole series of articles about how people do not believe that promise was met.

So that’s 16 years of the promises from politicians for the people Jerry described on their net worth not being realized. So there’s a particular breed of discontent that led to the candidates we got this time from the two parties. It’s not really a surprise.

FEIST: OK. Another question. Yes, sir. Grab the microphone.

Q: Jim Kolbe with the German Marshall Fund.

On the electoral college, none of you mentioned to what seems to me to be a reasonable compromise—and it’s already been adopted by Nebraska and Maine. And that is to assign the electoral votes to the Congressional districts—with the two that represent the Senators going to—who carries that state. It would certainly make much more competitive elections. Trump would be in the central valley of California. Hillary would be in Omaha, Nebraska—as she’s been, actually—looking for that electoral vote there. This is something that would seem to be reasonably easy to do. What do you think about that?

KAMARCK: I think it’s a great solution. I think it’s the best solution. The problem is it has to be done all at once, you see, because a couple years ago—you’ll remember, Ben—there was a movement in California to do something like this. Well, the problem is if only California does that, it hurts the Democrats, you see, because the—

FEIST: Or if only Texas did it.

KAMARCK: Right. And then if Texas does it, it hurts the Republicans. So the—I think the plan is actually one of—I think that’s one of the better ones. But somehow you have to impose it. I don’t know if you could impose it with an act of Congress. But you’d have to impose it on everybody at the same time. And that has been the difficultly.

GINSBERG: You would certainly—you would certainly strengthen the hand of the gerrymanderers in the different states if we went to that system.

FEIST: So you support it? (Laughter.)

Q: Jessica Ashooh with The Atlantic Council.

The conversation that you had on the primary system makes eminent sense, but what I’m wondering is more Americans than any other time in recent history now identify as independents or don’t identify with any part. And that’s where most of the middle ground votes lie. So how, if any way, could we bring those independent voices into the primary system?

KAMARCK: Let’s just make a little bit of an amendment to that. Most of those independent voters in fact are not truly independent. So we have decades and decades and political science and surveys that show that there are a lot of people who call themselves independents, but then when you ask for their voting—who did you vote for last time, who did you vote for in 2008, et cetera—they tend to be Democrats or Republicans. So the pure independents in the electorate have generally averaged around 12 percent to 13 percent historically. And they also tend to be people who are not very connected to the political system, and who in fact don’t vote. So it’s not clear that there’s this massive move away from political parties. There is a massive move away from calling yourself a member of a political party. It’s almost as if it’s politically incorrect to be part of a political party.

Now, the issue in primaries is whether or not there are open or closed primaries, whether you have party registration. And that has an awful lot to do with the individual history of parties in a state. It’s a state-run process. And so the reason you have open primaries in the South is that you have a long history of discrimination in primaries, and it was a one-party state—OK, it was a one-party system. You don’t—you have closed primaries in old machine places like New York and Connecticut and places like that. So it’s—that’s a very complicated question.

And remember what Tip O’Neill said, “all politics is local”? Because election laws are generally formulated state by state, not nationally, when you get into something like who’s going to vote, you’re not just talking about a presidential race or a Senate race. You’re talking about all the races all the way down to dogcatcher. And so this becomes—it becomes extraordinarily difficult to figure out how the politicians there who would make these decisions might calculate any change.

FEIST: All right. We’ll get to questions on this side of the room. Yes, sir.

Q: Joe Onek, The Raben Group.

FEIST: Oh, take the microphone, please, sir. Thank you.

Q: (Comes on mic.) Joe Onek, The Raben Group.

Would it make sense in the primaries, particularly winner-take-all primaries, to use ranked choice voting, so that the person who won—particularly when you have a field of 17—would be somebody who has at least some broad support within the party, and somebody doesn’t get all the votes, or most of the votes with—you know, 25 percent of the electorate?

GINSBERG: Well, Republicans had 10 winner-take-all states out of 56 states and territories who ran. So it’s not—it isn’t that big—that big a number. I think ranked choice voting, for whatever reason, will come along about the same time as reform of the electoral college. (Laughter.) That—I mean, despite the intellectual arguments that can be made about it, I don’t believe that there are too many politicians of either part who are going to end up supporting it.

FEIST: Yes, ma’am.

Q: I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School.

I have two questions about voting. One is, would it make a difference if we voted on Sundays? And secondly, would our voters have a better understanding about what our government does—which I think they almost understand nothing about that. I was just told that in Florida on their state income tax they have prioritized by percentage what your money goes to. And I thought that sounded like a really good idea. It would be interesting if it turns out you pay no taxes, like perhaps Donald Trump doesn’t—he doesn’t pay for any of these things.

FEST: To your question about Tuesday, there is an organization called Why Tuesday? for that very reason. Why do we vote on Tuesdays? And would it make a difference if we voted on the weekends. Should we change it?

SEIB: Well, we vote on—I’m from Kansas, so I know this. You vote on Tuesday because it worked with the farm schedule, basically, is why we vote on Tuesdays.

FEIST: And we’re no longer mostly farmers.

SEIB: Right. But I’m not—I’m not convinced that it makes any difference because, you know, the truth is in most—in a lot of states you can vote today, starting this week, and early voting. And in most states, you can vote—I think most is literally a true statement—now you’ll be able to vote whenever you want by voting early.

FEIST: Although, most people still vote on election day for whatever reason.

SEIB: They do. But if they’re motivated to vote on Tuesday, they’ll be motivated to vote on Sunday, I believe.

KAMARCK: Actually, I disagree with that. I think that the European democracies either vote on weekends or they declare Election Day a holiday. And I think that that creates a sort of social consensus that, oh, it’s a holiday, we’re supposed to vote today. And with same-day registration, which we have in a lot of states, which is very feasible, I think we would see increases. I think that the record of other reforms to increase turnout has been rather dismal. But two things we know increase turnout. In the European democracies we know we have much higher levels of turnout because election day is never on a workday. And, we also know that really competitive elections increase turnout. In other words, when there’s a rip-roaringly good fight, turnout goes up. And I think this year we’ll probably see pretty high turnout.

FEIST: But why do so few people vote in this country compared to other similarly situated countries, if you will. Ben, we have pretty abysmal participation, even at the presidential level. And then you get into off-year elections and local races. It’s really—it’s rather shameful, isn’t it?

GINSBERG: It’s a great question. And I’ve read a bunch about it and thought about it and I got no idea, right? (Laughter.) Because it is important. It is part of our fabric. But no choice also seems to be a legitimate decision that we enshrine. I mean, in other words, it’s the individual who, and, gee, maybe there’ll be some this year, who say, wow, these choices are no good. I believe that my way of expressing that these choices are no good is not to vote. And we—

FEIST: Of course, because people have better things to do at the moment.

GINSBERG: Well, no, because the point about early voting is exactly right. There are only 13 states that require you to vote on election day and have no excuse absentee voting. So that’s only 13 states, and they’re not really any of the competitive ones, that don’t allow people to vote over a lengthy period and every day of the week. So I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s something sort of in our—just in our makeup of the rugged individual is allowed to say no to the system by I’m not voting.

SEIB: I will—I’ll just add a point to that, which is that, you know, in our polling—or, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which Chuck Todd oddly refers to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. (Laughter.) But in any case—

FEIST: Have you told him not to do that?

SEIB: I’ve tried. So normally when we ask people, who are you going to vote for for president? It’s like Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or I don’t know, I’m not sure yet. This year we had to add a fourth option, which is neither because so many people volunteered that answer in the last few months. It’s not that I don’t know yet or haven’t decided. It’s I have decided I will not vote for either of those people. They have made a conscious decision to cast their vote by not voting. And we’ve never had to have that as a punch in our poll before. So I think you’re probably right. There’ll probably be high turnout. But there’s also going to be a segment of the population that’s choosing to turnout by walking away, and consciously choosing to do that.

FEIST: Well, as we started the session, the majority of Americans are not satisfied with their choices, and that could lead to that option. They also have two other choices in most states, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. But probably, you know, you want to guess what percentage the two of them together will get?

SEIB: Yeah. You know, I guess they’ll come around 10 percent maybe. And you know, a lot of—in the end the vote for the third-party candidates almost always declines at the end because people are tempted, and then they say, well, why do I want to waste my vote?

GINSBERG: So somebody ought to do the over/under book on the historical 129 to 130 million voters. More or less? Let’s ask a little focus group, actually. How many people think there’ll be more than 130 million turnout this time? Can I—

FEIST: And by the way, just give a little historical information. How many voted—where did you get the 130 million from?

GINSBERG: So if you sort of historically average the turnout in—I think it’s since 1980, you get somewhere between 129 and 130 million voters as the number who turn out. The Republican primaries had 26 million total voters. So there’s a huge delta between the number of people who vote in the primaries and the number who vote in general elections. So that’s—

FEIST: All right, we’re going to do something a little unconventional for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Q: As relates to the presidential voters?


FEIST: OK, so if 130 million—we’ll take Ben at his word—is a traditional average number, raise your hand if you think more than 130 million will vote this year. And—OK, raise your hand if you think less than 130 million will vote this year. Wow. So less has it, but not by a wide margin.

GINSBERG: Wow. See, that’s why—that’s really interesting. Because people aren’t sure if this is a high turnout election because of these candidates or, holy cow, we’re walking away.

KAMARCK: Yeah, that’s right.

FEIST: OK, right here in front.

Q: Odeh Aburdene, the Capital Trust Group.

Jerry, you’ve been a foreign correspondent for many years. What do you think of the impact on foreign policy on the polarization of U.S. politics—terrorism, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan?

SEIB: Well, I think it’s an interesting—there’s an interesting scramble, actually, in answering that question. I mean, I think the key question is interventionism—you know, willingness to intervene. And you have now a situation in which Hillary Clinton basically represents kind of the traditional interventionist position, which means that she stands for a position that is a diminishing part of the Democratic Party, and she stands with a lot of traditional Republicans on national security issues. I mean, Paul Wolfowitz has endorsed Hillary Clinton. So it boggles the mind, but that’s where you are. (Laughter.)

Meanwhile, though, she’s flanked on both sides, which is to say on the Republican Party and on the Democratic Party, but growing bodies of non-interventionists. And Trump is in the non-interventionist part of the Republican Party in my view, and Bernie Sanders kind of personified the no-interventionist part. So it’s a gender-bender question now. There is a view of America’s role in the world that is not partisan view; it’s a view about—it’s a view that’s born of a particular conviction about what the American role in the world is. And it’s now—it’s now outflanked on both parties by people who disagree with that who, you know, 10 years ago wouldn’t have.

So that’s what—that’s the picture. And it’s interestingly, and I don’t know where this goes in policy terms after the election, but it’s not a partisan question right now.

FEIST: Yeah, in the back of the room.

Q: I’m Glen Fukushima with the Center for American Progress.

Australia is a country that has rugged individualism, but they have compulsory voting and penalty for not voting. Has there been ever any serious discussion in the United States of requiring compulsory voting? And if not, why not?

KAMARCK: Americans would hate it. I mean, they’d they just hate it. I mean, you can—you can imagine the outcry? (Laughs.) I mean—

FEIST: Why? Why is it so wrong? Why is it so—

KAMARCK: Because Americans don’t want—I mean, Ben—Americans don’t want to be forced to do things, right? I mean, they didn’t want—I mean, a bunch of Americans don’t want to be forced to buy health insurance.

SEIB: Or have their kids vaccinated.

GINSBERG: Or wear seatbelts.

KAMARCK: Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s just—

FEIST: But that’s happened too.

KAMARCK: There’s just a big contrarian streak.

FEIST: And it’s good for the country.

KAMARCK: I can’t—I mean, you know, maybe 10 years in the future, 20 years in the future. But I can’t imagine Americans—I mean, as a matter of fact, I think it’s so out of the realm of possibility that nobody even polls the question. (Laughs.)

FEIST: Yes, sir. Over in—right there.

Q: Hi. James Kirchick with the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Regarding that last question, don’t you think that what we’ve learned in this election, and also in previous candidates who’ve come through these more democratic processes—Barry Goldwater, George McGovern—that the problem is too much democracy? We have too many people voting?

FEIST: So you’re suggesting that the elites—we should go back to the days when the elites or maybe Congress just picked the president and—

Q: Not that part of it. It’s more—

KAMARCK: In the middle?

GINSBERG: We can decide in this room. (Laughter.)

FEIST: This is a cross-section of America. (Laughter.)

Q: A trilateral commission at CFR.

KAMARCK: Barry Goldwater was actually elected by party elites. In fact, he did not—he did not do particularly well in primaries. Nelson Rockefeller ran against him and do fairly well. What Goldwater did, which was really historic, is that he took over the Republican Party from the precinct level up. Nobody had ever seen anything like this. And he did it so quietly that the—when you read the national reporters during—the national political news during the spring of 1964, the reporters were consistently missing the fact that Goldwater is winning delegates, and not necessarily winning primaries, OK? And then he’s got the—he’s got the nomination wrapped up in May, and The New York Times can’t figure it out, OK? So Goldwater really did something amazing, which changed the nature of the Republican Party for many decades, and really led to Ronald Reagan. I mean, it was a different Republican Party and a much more conservative Republican Party.

McGovern was the result of primaries and a more open system. But again, with McGovern there was a movement within the Democratic Party, which was the antiwar movement. So there was a generational movement, an antiwar movement. And they took over not just primaries, but they took over more traditional caucuses as well. So, again, when you have these—when you have these factions within parties gaining in strength, they will—they will play the game as the game is laid out. And sometimes they’ll do better and sometimes they won’t. You can’t—if you think you can predict outcomes by changing the system, you probably can’t.

FEIST: Yes, sir, in the back—right there. Just grab the microphone.

Q: Damon Porter with Global Automakers.

You’ve spoken a lot about how to increase participation and enfranchise voters to come out to vote. We haven’t spoken about how states have been actually taking away the right for people to vote and disenfranchising people to vote vis-à-vis voter ID laws and other restrictive measures. Can you speak on that please?

KAMARCK: I mean, the Democratic Party has been complaining about this, and fighting this, and bringing lawsuits in every state where this has happened. And I think they’ve probably made some—you know, some inroads in some places. We’ll see what—we’ll see what turnout is like. Both parties after 2000, though, are thoroughly lawyered up for election day, OK? I mean, after 2000, neither political party is going to let anything like that happen again. So I think that this is a battle that’s going to play out state-by-state and county-by-county, according to the county laws.

FEIST: Ben, you want to comment on it from the perspective of the Republicans?

GINSBERG: Yes and no. I mean, the truth is Europe has voter IDs in every country, every election. So there’s no anything inherently wrong in liberal democracies with the notion of verifying the people who go into the polling place are legally qualified to vote. The problem—and there have been Republicans behind this and I think that’s probably—it has been wrong—is that when you make it harder for certain groups to get ID than others. So the real issue that I think we have is not the idea of voter ID, but rather—but rather the ability to get that ID. So that, first of all, ought to be separated out.

Secondly, courts in five states have now peeled back those voter ID laws. It will be very interesting to see what happens in those states should they be close elections, with the undercurrent of the system’s rigged—whether that’s Donald Trump saying it, who won the nomination, or Bernie Sanders saying it who didn’t win the nomination—and how that plays out. And in fact, the repeal of voter ID laws, if it’s a close election, with the rhetorical climate today, it creates a potential flashpoint situation.

FEIST: All right. So I want to go to Jerry on this, because Republicans talk about voter fraud. Voter fraud, the current nominee is talking about it a lot. Democrats talk about voter access, voter access. Are either of these two issues, even though they’re talked about frequently—Florida 2000 aside—do they ever have an impact? Are they real issues, or at least are they as real as the level of conversation suggests they are?

SEIB: I think it’s—there’s not a lot of evidence that voter fraud is actually a really significant issue. It’s hard to know about voter access because it’s hard to prove a negative. I think in both cases they’re probably not as big a factor as the rhetoric suggests. However, and you mentioned Florida, you know, it doesn’t take much, right? It doesn’t take much. You know, Ralph Nader and his, you know, small percentage of the vote in Florida was enough to make a difference. So you know, these things are decided in the margins. So it does—it does matter. Probably not as much as the rhetoric suggests. At least, that’s what I would say.

GINSBERG: It’s used as a get out the vote tool these days more than it is a real issue.

FEIST: On both sides?

GINSBERG: On both sides.

FEIST: On both sides, without a doubt.

Yes, sir, in the corner.

Q: Hi. I’m John Stubbs. I run a group called Republicans for Clinton in 2016, which is an interesting place to be. (Laughter.)

I do think it would be similar for Democrats if Sanders has received the nomination on that side. And my question is really about the likelihood of a third party. Regardless of what happens, whether Trump wins or loses, the Republican Party is going to have a very interesting conversation moving forward. More Republicans voted against Trump in the primaries than voted for Trump in the primaries even though it is, as recognized, a small percentage of the Republican Party. What do you think the likelihood of a third party, a non-Republican, a non-Democrat, winning the presidential is in our lifetime?

FEIST: Anyone? Likelihood of a third party?

SEIB: Third party? Close to zero.

KAMARCK: Yeah, I’d say zero.



SEIB: I mean, I said it before, the structural impediments are just too large. I mean, start with money. Start with ballot access. Start with being able to get the attention of voters. And the reluctance of voters, as we said before, to, in the end, vote for somebody who is outside the system because they want their vote to matter. And nobody—I mean, nobody has convinced them that matters. I mean, look, I lived through John Anderson. I lived through Ross Perot. And we’re living through, you know, whatever it is we’re going through now. And I just don’t see how you get critical mass for a third party in this system.

FEIST: It doesn’t make—isn’t it almost impossible—didn’t the Constitution make it almost impossible, in that because you have to have a majority of the electoral college, a viable third-party candidate, even a third-party candidate who wins a plurality of the electoral college, isn’t going to be president because that’s going to go to the House of Representatives?

KAMARCK: Well, and I think the—where you see multi—it’s all about structure. I mean, it’s all about structure, frankly. Where you see multiparty systems is in proportional representation parliamentary systems. See, those are the only systems that yield multiparties because there if the Green Party picks up 15 seats in the parliament, in Israel or some other place, they have the opportunity to be part of a coalition. They get a Cabinet seat. They build power. They have some patronage. You know, they can actually have some policy successes, et cetera, and they can build on it.

Getting 15 seats or getting 15 percent of the vote in the American system gives you nothing anywhere. You don’t get a congressional set. You don’t get a state. You get nothing.

SEIB: George Wallace won six states in 1968. And poof, he was gone. The Republicans just moved in and started scooping up those voters. Ross Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992. Poof. You know, he tried again in ’96, and it was gone.

GINSBERG: Yeah, and I think implicit in your question is the notion, if the Republican Party is going to go through a terrible bloodletting and will never be the same should Donald Trump not win the presidency. I phrase that OK? (Laughter.) So if your—if your group is successful, and Hillary Clinton is the president and not Donald Trump, we will gather in a circular firing squad of incredible ferocity for about six months. And there’ll be a bloodletting. And then there’ll be an off-year election.

And if you’re going to look at off-year elections, in a Hillary Clinton presidency, Republicans are going to do quite well, including in the governors’ races, the 36 governors’ races of 2018. That will have a great say in the redistricting that will last for the next decade. Republicans will believe, because they did well in the 2018 midterm elections, that, eh, not really anything to worry about. They’ll have another 17 candidates on the ballot in 2020. And you know, go on from there. (Laughter.)

FEIST: OK, so we’re just about out of time. I want to do something against interest but I—it just occurred—the one thing we did not talk about this entire conversation, other than a passing reference from Ben, was the media coverage of this election.

GINSBERG: We only have two minutes.

FEIST: No, I’m going to give you 30 seconds, and you 30 seconds, and then Jerry get to respond.

SEIB: Zero. (Laughter.)

FEIST: So give us your assessment of the media coverage of this election, what it could have been. What went well or what didn’t go well. But you have to do it quickly.

GINSBERG: I love my friends in the media.

FEIST: OK. Thank you very much. Elaine. (Laughter.)

GINSBERG: That’s all I had to say. There are now so many different voices in the media that saying what the media coverage is is a really difficult question, just because with the disintegration of the few central voices in the media it’s really spread out. And one of the difficult things to gauge about the coverage is what coverage does any individual who’s going to go out and vote getting, because there’s so much picking and choosing. So overall, I think you guys rely on these nonsensical polls where you’re trying to guess the turnout model, which I think is really, really tough. And you should take all polls with a grain of salt. But that drives a huge amount of media coverage. So that’s the first 30 seconds of about an hour-long tirade.

FEIST: OK. (Laughter.)

KAMARCK: I’ll go right back to where I began. In a system with no peer review, OK, with no people who actually know things evaluating the candidates, it has fallen to the media. And they are doing a terrible job, OK? They are just doing a terrible job. We saw it with Matt Lauer the other night. We saw it one of the early debates when it was very clear that Donald Trump didn’t know what the nuclear triad was. Now, most of America may not know that, but, hello, a president of the United States should know that. And he was not called on this. So I think that the only group we have left to hold these candidates accountable and see what they know and see if they’re up to the job is the media. And they have not been doing a very good job of it.

FEIST: Jerry, the weight of the world is on your shoulders. (Laughter.)

SEIB: I don’t know. I think I’ve already lost this argument. But look, I won’t—it’s been a very tough year for everybody. I would just say that I think the—what bothers me is that—and I certainly include myself in this—is that nobody saw the Trump phenomenon coming, not the way it manifested itself. And that’s true of both political parties, by the way, but it’s also true of people in my profession, which says to me that we’ve missed something. And we have to go back and think about why it is we were so taken by surprise by Donald Trump. And I think it has to do with not talking to the country enough—talking to the country too much, not talking talk with the country—talking to the country too much.

Q: And listening.

SEIB: Same thing. But that’s where—I think we have to examine that question after this is all over.

FEIST: Well, on that note, eight weeks, nine hours, and 30 minutes from now the polls on the West Coast will close, and this election will be over. Thank you for joining us. Thanks for coming today. Thank you very much. (Applause.)


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