How to Pick a President -- That's What University of Virginia Center for Politics Event Asks Three Former Governors

April 17, 2008 — The vast and ever-increasing amounts of money spent on U.S. political campaigns are a detriment to our democracy. And, contrary to public opinion, the Electoral College is a quirk of American politics that should not be tampered with.

Those two opinions were shared by three former governors — John Sununu of New Hampshire, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Virginia's Doug Wilder — who spoke Wednesday evening in Newcomb Hall at a Center for Politics event, "Reconsidering the Presidency."

Center director and event host Larry Sabato noted in his introduction that he expected a lively debate from these three political veterans from across the political spectrum, and the trio did not disappoint, offering many diverging suggestions on how to reform U.S. politics and the presidential nomination process.

Sununu, a former three-term governor of New Hampshire, White House chief of staff and co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" political news show, defended the widely criticized tradition of his home state being the first to hold presidential primaries. Critics contend that being first gives New Hampshire an outsized influence; that the predominately white population isn't reflective of the nation; and that voters there get the opportunity to personally meet with each candidate several times, while voters in other states may not even be visited by candidates. Recalling his own run for president in 1992 and complaining that recent presidential candidates haven't campaigned enough in Virginia, Wilder noted, "It's not right for certain areas of the country to be constantly courted to the degree that the residents there expect it ... and others are surprised just to get a handshake or a chance even to be in the room with a presidential candidate."

"I think people don't understand that the nominating process should demand from our citizens an equal commitment to the election process as the general election," said Sununu. If another state goes first instead of New Hampshire, contended Sununu, that state should have some of the same merits as his state: a voter turnout rate near 75 percent, engaged citizens who ask serious questions and a place that doesn't require lots of money to start being noticed by the public.

Wilder, who became the first African-American governor in U.S. history when elected in 1989, suggested that primary election rules could be "modernized" by having a longer timeframe, such as two weeks, in which to cast ballots, rather than just one day.

Weicker was elected governor of Connecticut in 1990 as an independent after serving three terms in the U.S. Senate as a Republican. He drew attention to the "extra hoops" that those outside the "two-party duopoly" must contend with in order to run for office. He proposed a constitutional amendment that would standardize the requirements for a presidential candidate to qualify to be on the ballot in any given state, replacing the widely varying requirements that inhibit independent candidates.

Contrary to the view of 70 percent of Americans who would like to do away with the Electoral College, according to opinion polls cited by Sabato, all three governors opined that it should stay. Weicker and Sununu both noted that the current system (wherein a candidate wins all or none of the electors representing each state) makes candidates campaign in all 50 states.

"Without the Electoral College, [a presidential candidate] will campaign in four states: California, New York, Texas and Florida. So if you were worried about Virginia being left out in the primary, they ain't even going to stop here," Sununu said.

All three panelists (and several audience members) condemned what they all termed the "obscene" amounts of money involved in today's politics, with Weicker going so far as to declare, "I think money is destroying politics in the United States."

Only Wilder offered a substantive suggestion of how to address that issue. The U.S. could follow the British electoral system, he said, and shorten the campaign season by setting firm start and end dates for campaigning, thereby reducing the opportunity (and the need) to spend on political advertising.

In contrast, Sununu warned of the futility of trying to curb money in politics. Since the First Amendment guarantee of free expression has been interpreted to include the right to spend money to broadcast a political message, people will always find ways around laws that try to limit that right, he argued. Rather than rely on laws to regulate political spending, he suggested creating an "attitude and an understanding in America of what really ought to be heard from candidates." He conceded that it was virtually impossible for that "wish" to be realized, but that it was "even more impossible" that laws will change the impact of money on politics.

Sununu also decried how today's media have "poisoned the minds of the public" with flawed coverage of political issues like the Florida recounts in the 2000 presidential election. While one questioner defended the role of the media as "the fourth branch of government," no participants even entertained the idea that political advertising might benefit the political process, such as by increasing voter knowledge and participation, as recent research from U.Va. politics professor Paul Freedman has found.

Among the packed crowd of several hundred in Newcomb Hall, several audience members noted their appreciation of how informative the discussion was. Brett Diehl, a sophomore at Monticello High School, came to the event as a chaperone for his younger sister, who was attending as part of the Youth Leadership Initiative of the Center for Politics. The discussion "opened my mind" to the arguments in favor of the Electoral College, he said. He looked forward to possibly taking a class with Sabato as part of a special scholar program that enables honor students at Monticello to attend classes at U.Va.

Center for Politics events are "always thought-provoking and informative," said Jana Cutlip, a teacher in Fluvanna County and a Green Party member. "I just wish more people would attend them."

— By Brevy Cannon