Our flawed process: Many voters wonder if we’d be better off with a presidential do-over


How the hell did we end up here?

America stands poised to elect a president it doesn’t like. No two other candidates for the White House have been this unpopular, at least as long as polling has been around to measure our loathing.

We’ll be stuck either with a woman seen as a slippery pol with disdain for those who might challenge her ethics, or a man perceived as a pricklish bully with a suspect understanding of the complexities the presidency holds.

It only got worse Friday. Donald Trump was caught on 11-year-old video crudely suggesting his first move with women was sometimes force, the perk awarded to “a star.” Call it an October Surprise, but it feels like just the next scene in some already low-brow reality TV.

“I’m frustrated that one of these two candidates is going to be our new president. Just utterly frustrated,” said Kyle Laubscher, a 37-year-old father of four from Independence. A longtime Republican, he shifted to Libertarian four years ago. Still, he pines for the choices of 2012.

“Trump … if you get really into the details, he’s backpedaling or just throwing lies out there,” Laubscher said. “With Clinton, you’ve got scandal after scandal after scandal that’s following her around. … Honesty’s a huge issue there.”

Trump and Clinton meet Sunday in their second debate with dwindling prospects that the campaign can escape the gutter.

Trump’s camp saw the timing of the story about his just-us-guys lewdness as awfully convenient. It broke on the day when snippets leaked of what Hillary Clinton might have said — she’s not confirming — to Wall Street types while picking up cash for private speeches two years ago. Those excerpts seemed to confess less populism than she claims as a candidate.

Trump made a late night apology Friday, a statement read to a camera like someone hawking steaks. He teamed his talk of redemption with a you-wanna-go-there combativeness suggesting he’s eager to fight back. It didn’t play well.

A “sickened” House Speaker Paul Ryan canceled a Saturday appearance with him. Running mate Mike Pence declined to sub for Trump at that Wisconsin event. He said in a statement, “I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them. … (Trump) has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation” in Sunday’s debate.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump released a video statement Friday in response to a 2005 video in which he made lewd comments and bragged about groping women.

Yet for months Trump has energized many Republicans excited about a business guy coming to tear up Washington to get things done. And many Democrats thrill at the idea of electing the first woman president, a lifelong advocate for children who knows how things work in the White House, on Capitol Hill and international diplomacy.

But millions of voters will watch their TVs frustrated they won’t even play much part in choosing the lesser evil.

Rather, the fate of the republic rests with the undecided voters of Florida, Pennsylvania and a handful of other 50-50 states — people so politically befuddled they can’t yet sort out whether Trump is better or worse than Clinton.

The candidates arose from a primary system that similarly turned on a few random states.

Those primaries, in turn, operate to please political parties and the wings at their activist extremes. Growing numbers of independent voters, meantime, get stuck with what the parties deliver.

Now we’re in the heart of debate season that offers insults and sound bites over adult conversation.

“I had somebody tell me ‘I’d vote for a can of stewed tomatoes if it was running against Hillary, because I don’t want to vote for Hillary. But it’s not a can of stewed tomatoes she’s running against, it’s Trump,’ ” said Karen Search, who makes conversation with the men and kids whose hair she cuts in Parkville. “Everybody’s just aggravated.”

She voted for Obama once, but says “I’m not voting for Hillary.” Trump? Maybe, she said on Thursday. By Saturday, she wasn’t so sure.

“I might just write in my dog,” she says.

So how did we get here, end up with these two? Let us count the ways.

The primaries

Voters ultimately picked Trump and Clinton, right? Yeah, but it’s a twisted form of democracy that gives Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and the party die-hards in those random, unrepresentative states far louder voices in the decision than the rest of us.

Some scholars even argue that the system suffers from too much democracy.

They look at an earlier time when party bosses made the call and see a certain wisdom. Why not have folks obsessed with government and politics make the pick? They’ll have a better sense of the issues. They can know the candidates personally, get a better understanding of their smarts and honesty. That’s what got us Lincoln and FDR. It’s voters who picked Trump and Clinton.

“We don’t go out and look to a vote of the people on who should perform a surgery or build a bridge,” said Wichita State University political science professor Mel Kahn, a member of the Kansas Democratic State Committee. “We should seek out expertise.”

Trump muscled his way to the top of a crowded Republican field largely because the field was crowded, said Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford. The reality TV star stood out from more conventionally qualified candidates and won early pluralities as the establishment folks split their votes among each other and continually underestimated him.

Clinton won partly because the Democrats have failed to nurture a more robust stable of candidates and because she’d lined up the money people and campaign professionals who saw her as the most likely to win the primaries, Goldford said.

Then the campaign looked to first-caucus Iowa and the other early primary states, what Goldford calls “accidents of history” who’ve fiercely defended their status in order to bring in money to the state parties and maintain their pumped-up influence.

“It’s not like somebody ever calculated that this is the best way” to pick the best prospective presidents, he said. “But it’s the system we’ve got.”

Parties and conventions

Both major parties’ national nominating conventions were once places of real decision-making, where party veterans gathered to sift through competing claims and nominate candidates considered close to the mainstream.

No more. No convention has gone to a second ballot since 1952, and delegate selection is now largely a ceremonial endeavor. Conventions have become pageants, designed to endorse the results of the primaries and entertain the public.

That makes longtime party members less important.

“I know it’s a joke this time, but maybe a smoke-filled room isn’t a bad idea,” said Clay Barker, director of the Kansas Republican Party.

Returning to a party-run nominating convention is almost impossible. Voters have tasted power and don’t want to give it up.

Both parties have tried to balance populist and elitist forces. Democrats have mostly proportional delegate selections in their primaries. But they also have superdelegates, party officials free to vote as they please. Republicans rely on delegate rules — more winner-take-all states — that nudge out fringe candidates quickly.

Both approaches will be under serious pressure after the election.

“Even if Hillary Clinton is an incumbent president, I think there will be a very vigorous debate about what this process should look like,” said Roy Temple, director of the Missouri Democratic Party.

The mostly ceremonial conventions reveal a more fundamental truth: the parties themselves are endangered, increasingly powerless to stifle an outsider’s chances.

Ever fewer people consider themselves Republicans or Democrats, polls show. The traditional building blocks of parties — labor unions, for example, or business interests — now give money to political action committees and political nonprofit companies beholden only to their contributors.

That, in turn, lets candidates rise without any check by the party apparatus.

“The parties have nothing to say about that. They have no role,” said one prominent consultant. “And no real ability to move votes.”

If Friday’s video release prompted Trump to pull out of the race — even some in his own party suggested it’s time — the Republican National Committee could pick a replacement. The early money would be on Pence. But election experts say its unclear whether those party insiders could legally force Trump out. Trump vowed Saturday on Twitter that he’d “never drop out.”

Electoral College

The Electoral College may not be the founders’ most beloved idea — unless you live in the handful of battleground states that determine modern presidential elections.

Article II of the U.S. Constitution says that states — in whatever way their legislatures decide — pick electors to choose the president. State lawmakers have gravitated to using the popular vote for president to choose those electors and hand them out winner-take-all. (Two exceptions: In Nebraska and Maine, the vote in each congressional district decides electors, with two more awarded to the statewide winners.)

Those legislatures remain free to change the rules. The folks in Jefferson City and Topeka, for instance, could decide tomorrow that they, not you, pick the people who pick the president.

Critics lob scores of criticism at the system. Electors could overrule voters, and even state legislatures, by picking whomever they want.

Smaller states have an outsized vote because they not only get an elector for each population-based congressional district, they add on two to represent each Senate seat. (Each electoral vote in California represents more than 705,000 people, or almost four times as many as the roughly 194,000 residents of Wyoming represented by each elector.)

Four times, or once every 14 elections, the guy who came in second won the presidency. (Barely win some battleground states and lose big elsewhere and you can take the presidency without the popular vote, e.g., George W. Bush’s 2000 election.)

The Electoral College changes elections most powerfully by making much of the country irrelevant. Safely red Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma — increasingly Missouri and most of the country’s midsection — vote so predictably Republican that the candidates ignore them. Ditto for the mostly blue coasts.

That’s why, by some estimates, more than half of presidential campaign events between the conventions and the first debate landed in Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. Other research suggests those same swing states will get 7 percent more grants controlled by the government and twice as many disaster declarations.

“There’s this massive distortion of public policy as they cater to the battleground states,” said John Koza, chairman of National Popular Vote.

After the 2000 election, newly minted U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton said that “it’s time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.” That went nowhere.

Koza’s group is pushing a plan that would make the Electoral College bend to the will of the national popular vote. So far, 11 states have passed laws to join a compact that would promise all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The agreement kicks in when enough states, representing an election-clinching 270 electoral votes, do the same.

Backers of the proposal argue it would make a vote in Clay Center, Kan., matter every bit as one in Philadelphia or Tallahassee.

The current system, said Catholic University of America law professor Victor Williams, is “anti-democratic.”

“It’s antiquated,” said Williams, who’s also a founder of Lawyers and Law Professors for Trump. “The campaigns write off the solidly blue and red states, and that influences the policies they adopt.”

Traditionalists argue the Electoral College helps preserve the country’s sense of federalism — individual states, not the national collections of scattered voters, determine the presidency.

“The president was supposed to be a representative of states, not the people. That’s for Congress,” said Robert Ross, a political science professor at Utah State University. The founders, he said, were “wary of turning things over to national politics.”

The debates

Kyle Dennis, a debate instructor at William Jewell College, thinks of presidential face-offs as “a spectacle.”

Indeed, modern presidential debates closely resemble popular entertainment — countdown clocks, instant analysis. Voters watch so they can take part in drinking games and political bingo. Trump made clear Friday night that he’s ready to counter charges about his history with women by bringing up Bill Clinton’s affairs and Hillary Clinton’s treatment of women who accuse the former president of crass behavior.

As a rational way of providing voters important information about candidates, columnist Bonnie Kristian wrote before the first debate, they’re much “worse than useless … showmanship and complaining, obstinacy and irrelevance, petty quibbles, grandstanding, pandering, half-truths, and punchlines.”

Concerns abound:

▪ Debate formats are confusing and almost never followed. Moderators ask questions, which the candidates ignore. They often bull through time limits and common courtesy as well.

▪ Moderators are picked haphazardly. The Commission on Presidential Debates typically asks television anchors and reporters to moderate, leaving the choice of questions in a single pair of hands. Complaints about biased moderators have become routine.

▪ Third- and fourth-party candidates face enormous hurdles just to get into the debates. The last third-party candidate to take part in a general election presidential debate was Ross Perot in 1992.

▪ Viewers and reporters place a higher premium on appearance and demeanor than answers. Candidates prepare themselves with canned “zingers” designed to go viral later, not to enlighten voters.

And let’s not forget the debates during the primaries, which this year included routine 10-person debates, a “kid’s table” of candidates who polled too poorly to join the main stage, and controversies over when and how the debates took place.

Remember: It was in a debate that Donald Trump referred to the size of his male anatomy. It was hardly a Lincoln-Douglas moment.

All of these problems, and others, convince many experts and political scientists that bombastic candidates like Trump — and entrenched political veterans like Clinton — are best prepared for the uneven forums, leaving voters to judge stage temperament more than issues.

That’s bred calls for a better way.

“More than ever, debates need to be more than infotainment, offering a serious exploration of candidate’s positions, beliefs, and ability to govern,” political scientist Norm Ornstein wrote in The Atlantic.

Kyle Dennis, the William Jewell instructor, says quality debates are important — and, sadly, rare.

“It has a huge effect,” he said. “But as far as value …”