Did the smoke filled back room system produce better candidates ?

So the primary season is almost over except for DC I believe. The presumptive nominees are The Donald and Hillary, both of whom have “issues”.

So a general question I will throw out. Did the old system generally characterized as the smoke filled back room with the party operatives choosing the nominee. Did that system produce better candidates ?

I am curious what other fellow dopers here think on that question. Note……This is not a discussion on the merits of the current candidates. Plenty of other places here to discuss that.

Such a difficult question because “better” is so subjective. Better for the party? Better for the country? Better for the voters (if that can be different than the country)?

I think there are clearly advantages to those smoke-filled rooms: A clarity of purpose and people choosing who have solidarity of purpose (at least to some extent). Engaged and involved decision-making. Avoiding a lightning strike for an Obama or a Trump.*

And there are disadvantages: Resting huge power in the number of people who could fit in a room. No accountability. The ability to ignore swaths of the electorate. Avoiding a lightning strike for an Obama or a Trump.*

  • Can be a positive or a negative for either system, depending on your feelings.

The party hand-picking a candidate usually meant there was agreement among the party brass, which leads to better cooperation in support, funding, calling in favors and help, etc. It probably meant the guy seen as most electable was given the shot.

However, you’re going to have to define “better candidate” for your question to generate a useful answer. The above is a “better candidate” for the party’s purposes, after all.

History is totally equivocal on this question.

Herbert Hoover was considered by many to be the best qualified person in the country, maybe of all time. FDR was considered to be a political lightweight, with a pleasant personality and a second-rate mind. Nobody cared that Woodrow Wilson was an avowed racist. Dwight Eisenhower was the most popular person in the country but had no political experience.

Was Alf Landon a good candidate? How can anyone tell? He had no chance against FDR. What about Charles Evans Hughes? Al Smith? Thomas Dewey? Adlai Stevenson? Weren’t they all qualified by all normal standards?

That’s just the 20th century. The 19th century was even more erratic.

And all that sidesteps the issue of our not having a clue who the party bosses would have settled on in the past half century since the modern system has been put in place. Would any of them have won? Yes, by definition. Does that make them better? How would we know? There’s no way to compare.

The smoke-filled rooms gave us presidents like Pierce, Buchanan and Harding, so you can’t say the bosses were always geniuses.

And when you get into a situation like 1924, where the Democrats in effect, “Let’s just pick someone and go home,” it makes the current system look positively brilliant.

It took the convention 49 ballots to nominate Pierce. That doesn’t sound like a smoke-filled room of a few people deciding who got the nomination.

Actually, I always had the impression that the smoke-filled room arose because the conventions were unruly and unpredictable?

Not really. Conventions had always been a meeting of state bosses and other fiefdoms, horse-trading votes in return for positions, policies, candidates, and other concessions. The average delegate had no say at all. His vote (much later, a few hers) was a mere number to be bargained away by a boss as part of the lump sum. The large number of votes indicated mostly how hard it was to get these concessions made.

Conventions were unruly, true. Many thousand men away from home drinking and having a good time, supporting their candidates the only possible way - sheer loudness? Chaos. The visitors sections were even worse. But all that had little meaning. It may have helped the bosses gauge which candidates would be best supported by the electorate, but it was always insiders who made the final choice.

That was true long before the “smoke-filled room” of 1920.

Not to discuss her merits but it seems pretty likely Hillary would have won a smoke filled room contest as well given her superdelegate and endorsement leads.

The difference between the system we have today and the smoke filled room is that Hillary would have probably won the nomination…in 2008.

Well, except Bill Clinton probably wouldn’t have been nominated in 1992. :smiley:

I think the old system probably produced better candidates, but democracy isn’t just about results, it’s about process, so that’s why we have the modern primary system. It’s not like we had some disaster that made us implement it, it was just an evolution. And I think we should keep it.

That being said, our system has always included veto points where the will of the people can theoretically be overturned. This should only be done in extraordinary circumstances, but one could make a plausible argument that Trump’s nomination is more a quirk of this particular election year than the genuine will of Republican voters. He never had majority support until all his opponents dropped out. Something like 4% of eligible voters have voted for him in total. And he’s become even more dickish since winning, not less.

THat may all sound like rationalization, but I supposed the delegates could use it and overturn the primaries. Trump is certainly giving them pretext. Maybe they should take advantage of it.

One more concern I have: In the TV and internet age we seem to be gravitating towards big names rather than well qualified candidates. The internet has another side, it does enable complete unknowns to get attention too, but usually those complete unknowns are just exciting ideological base voters, they aren’t well qualified candidates. So in the last few cycles, races have been primarily between “big name” candidates and “insurgents who were nobodies just a few months ago”, with the well qualified, boring candidates who would just make great Presidents get completely ignored. If that continues, we may have to rethink bringing back the smoke filled rooms. It’s depressing how many amazing candidates from both parties have gotten single digits in the primaries because they were “boring”. Most of what a President is supposed to be doing is boring! If anything, we’ve had a problem lately with Presidents only wanting to do interesting stuff, like pass major legislation and fight wars. Time for serious candidates.

Define “better”.

More qualified, less dependent on being “exciting” and more on fitness to be President. Even the smoke filled rooms sometimes fell victim to celebrity occasionally, but even then at least it was generals and not some guy who had one amazing TV moment or is the son of a President and not particularly remarkable in any other way.

Have the smoke-filled room select a half-dozen good candidates, who then compete in the primaries. Nice mix of appointment and democratic elections.

Actually we did have a disaster of sorts that made us implement it. The election of 1968.

In 1968 only 13 states (and D.C) had a Democratic primary at all. Hubert Humphrey won none of them – in fact, he didn’t really compete in any of them. Yet, by focusing on the party bosses, Humphrey managed to win more than 2/3 of the delegates, and the nomination.

Of course, one might argue that Humphrey was a better candidate than 1972’s nominee, George McGovern.

Humphery was the best candidate the Democrats had that was both acceptable to the base and to the establishment.

The Democratic Party in 1968 was brutally divided three ways and had just seen a likely unifier get shot. You had the establishment which supported the Vietnam War, you had the anti-war liberals, and then you had the segregationists, who went third party. It’s a miracle Humphery did as well as he did.

I think the Democrats had the best idea, regardless of how much controversy it’s gotten. Superdelegates.

Or a better approach is just to legally codify in the party rules what we’ll call a Trump Rule, or what Democrats could have called a Wallace Rule if Wallace hadn’t gotten shot in 1972: If the party judges that the candidate selected by the people is so far outside the mainstream or so outrageously unqualified or hateful, then they reserve the right to open the floor to new nominees on the first ballot. Of course they can already do it, but it makes a difference in perception if it’s specifically written into the rules.