When Bitch PhD says “jump,” The Edge of the American West says “how high?” And earlier today she told us to start hopping:

Dear Eric and/or Ari,

I have spent part of my morning explaining the caucus/primary/convention system to a Canadian. Could one or both of you please do a post running down “how Americans elect a president” for handy linkage?

Thank you,
B

So, I went and found Seth Masket to do the heavy lifting for us. He’s an honest-to-goodness political scientist — and a great friend. I’ve asked him to speak slowly, so that even a Canadian will be able to understand him. Eh?

Greetings, all. I’ve been asked to chime in about the presidential nomination system. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll try to be brief.

All these contests, starting with the Iowa Caucus, are a competition for delegates to the national party conventions. (In case you were wondering, this has nothing to do with the Electoral College, which determines the winner of the general election in November and is prescribed by the Constitution. The Constitution contains no mentions of caucuses or primaries or even parties.)

As with many aspects of our federal governing system, this one seems chaotic. State parties have broad discretion as to how — and when — to select delegates. Some states, like Iowa, use a caucus, in which people meet and occasionally even deliberate over their choice of candidates. Montana’s Republican Party is using a very selective caucus this year — only about 3,000 people will be allowed to participate. Most states use primary elections to pick their delegates, with some (like New Hampshire) allowing independent voters to participate and others limiting participation to registered party members.

State parties also choose when to hold their contests. Earlier seems better, but the national parties are protecting Iowa and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status, stripping delegates from state parties that try to go too early.

The delegates chosen in all of these contests (4,417 Democrats and 2,516 Republicans) will meet next summer at the conventions and vote on a presidential nominee. Since almost all these delegates are pledged to a candidate, whoever wins a majority of pledged delegates in these state contests is the nominee. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

A lot of what we consider venerable traditions in this process are actually quite young. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson didn’t run around New Hampshire and Iowa in 1800 trying to have coffee with as many likely voters as possible. (For one thing, they preferred tea. For another, Iowa didn’t exist yet, and even if it had, it was located in French territory. I could go on.) The New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucus have only received much attention since the 1970s.

Prior to that, we had what’s usually referred to as a “mixed system” of primaries and party conventions. That is, a few key party bosses — usually with a cigar in one hand and a stiff drink in the other — often determined who would be nominated, occasionally struggling with party convention delegates over it.

Party nominations were made at the convention, and political spectators often didn’t know who the nominee would be before the convention was held. The few primaries that existed played the role of candidate testing grounds. John Kennedy, for example, competed in the 1960 West Virginia primary to prove that a wealthy Catholic could be competitive in a working-class Protestant state. His victory there impressed party leaders and gave them some confidence that he could compete nationally, so they nominated him.

The last gasp of this old system was in 1968, when the Democratic Party famously nominated Hubert Humphrey, who supported the Vietnam War and had not competed in a single primary, at its Chicago convention. This greatly angered supporters of anti-war candidates like Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, who had been campaigning all over the country. Add to that anger the image of one of the major party bosses, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, instructing police officers to club anti-war protesters outside the convention hall, and you’ve got a lot of anger directed toward party bosses. This anger prompted a reform of the nomination system, which inadvertently led to an explosion of the number of primaries.

One of the architects of these reforms was Sen. George McGovern. In 1972, as one of the few people in the country who now knew how presidents were nominated, he – you guessed it – decided to run for president. McGovern determined that the old strategy of impressing party bosses was now dead; the key was to impress the media, which one did by doing well in the early primaries and caucuses (Iowa and New Hampshire). McGovern followed this route to the nomination in ’72, as did Jimmy Carter in ’76.

But then something funny happened — the party reasserted itself. In an interesting forthcoming book called The Party Decides (draft manuscript available here), authors Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller point out that party insiders — a collection of key officeholders, interest group leaders, donors, and opinion-makers — usually pick a candidate long before any voting occurs. Indeed, endorsements by these party elites do a much better job predicting who will win a nomination than polls, funding, or anything else.

The insiders’ candidate prevailed in all the major party nominating contests between 1980 and 2000. 2004 was slightly weird for the Democrats; insiders didn’t necessarily converge on Kerry, but they did conspire to keep Howard Dean from getting nominated.

This year is weirder. To the extent that party insiders have picked favorites, they appear to have chosen Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. But the party insiders aren’t as united as in past elections, particularly on the Republican side. The insider candidates may yet get the nod, but these contests are much more competitive than expected.

So where are we today? On the Democratic side, Sen. Barack Obama had an unexpectedly good showing in the Iowa Caucus. But even if he beats Hillary Clinton next Tuesday in New Hampshire, that will hardly demolish her candidacy. For Obama to get nominated, he’ll have to defeat Clinton in a lot of upcoming races where she is favored to win and in which she has a lot of important allies. Let’s just remember that in 1992, Bill Clinton didn’t compete in Iowa, and he came in second in New Hampshire. These early contests are important, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for winning the nomination.

On the Republican side, it’s hard to be sure who the insiders prefer — but it’s easy to see who they do not like. That’s Mike Huckabee. You can get a taste of what’s in store for Huckabee here. The job for GOP insiders now is to find their anti-Huckabee (it’s probably Romney) and support him like crazy. Of course, if it was that easy, they’d have done it already.

Okay, I went on and on. Sorry about that.

When I asked Seth to do the above post, he was shy about his blog. But now he’s agreed to let me say that you can find it here.