Monday, January 25, 2010

Promises, Promises

Kevin Drum asks:
Has increased polarization forced presidents to be more proactive setting the legislative agenda — or, at the very least, forced presidents to take a public stand on more issues?
I'd be willing to bet that the answer here is no -- that the culprit in any increase over time would be the modern presidential nominations system, not  polarization.  Pre-1972, candidates could campaign for the nomination without necessarily having to give a whole lot of targeted stump speeches to a wide variety of differing audiences, or to appear in a series of pre-nomination debates.  Even those candidates who did contest primaries, such as John Kennedy in 1960, only entered a handful of those races.  In the other states (and in some primary states as well) the campaign for the nomination was not fought mainly over delegate selection; it was a fight over convincing already-chosen delegates, many of whom were supporters of a fairly small number of delegation leaders, to convince those delegates to give their support to a candidate. 

Both systems require plenty of promises and back-room deals, but the current system forces a good deal of those promises and deals to become part of the public record.  I'd be surprised if this doesn't lead to a lot more detailed promises during the campaign, which in turn leads to more of an incentive to act in the Oval Office.

The argument on polarization would presumably be that given the lack of internal differences within parties, it's less risky for a candidate for the nomination to stake out positions.  But that presumes that nomination battles are public contests in the first place -- which gets back to McGovern-Fraser (that is, reforms of the nomination process before 1972).

However, I don't recall seeing any study on the issue, so it's mostly speculation on my part. 


  1. Should be a fairly easy test: the primary system and the pressure to run this way has been there since 1972 and readily apparent since 1980, whereas polarization starts later, really, like the late 1980s is charitable and early 1990s is a better cutpoint.
    Plus, polarization is more continuous than primary system, which is pretty dichotomous

  2. Matt,

    Yup, it's mostly a matter of compiling a database of promises. I recommend sending the reporters back in time...I know that there are studies comparing promises to results, but I think they only use convention platforms.

    OTOH, the primary system isn't quite dichotomous. The initial reform is, with a clean break between 1968 and 1972 (at least on the Dem side), but then there's a gradual process in which things get sorted out and the party regains control, so that 2008 is a lot different than 1972.

    I guess the only other independent variable I can think of as mattering would be the total number of organized interest groups out there, which I think (if I'm remembering correctly) explodes in the 1970s.

    Overall, however, I agree one could test this.


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