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It's too early to name Bachmann, Perry front-runners

By Julian E. Zelizer, CNN Contributor
  • No votes have been cast, but some Republicans have been declared front-runners
  • Julian Zelizer: Activists, media and donors usurping presidential selection process
  • He says Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have been elevated to front-runner status
  • Candidates with less appeal to partisan voters are losing out, Zelizer says

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" (Times Books) and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- The meteoric rise of Rep. Michele Bachman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the competition for the GOP presidential nomination -- combined with the rapid demise of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's presidential bid -- all before any caucus or primary has taken place, reveals how the presidential selection process is broken.

Pawlenty was a candidate who might have appealed to a broader selection of voters outside the Republican base. Bachman and Perry are less likely to do so.

Bachman's victory in the Iowa straw poll, which is merely a measure of a small number of people who attended a fundraising dinner in Ames, was enough to propel her into the position of a front-runner. The straw poll, which Jimmy Carter famously used in 1976 to gain momentum as the dark horse candidate in a primary contest against well- known Democrats, has now turned into a decisive event that can make or break candidates. But in Carter's case the straw poll only made him a name people recognized; he still had to win some caucuses and primaries to prove himself.

The increasingly rapid selection process, with more and more vetting taking place before the voting begins, is an acceleration of problems that have been affecting the primary and caucus system for decades.

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The centrality of primaries and caucuses to both parties since the 1970s has given way to a number of political forces that are frontloading decision-making. Today, campaign donors, political activists and the media play an enormous role in determining who will be able to run for president.

As originally envisioned in the progressive era, the primary system was a reform aimed at breaking the monopoly of party bosses. The goal of the primary was to take the decisions out of the "smoke-filled rooms" of party bosses at conventions and to place authority back into the hands of voters.

With primaries and caucuses, candidates would be forced to engage in good old-fashioned retail politics in different kinds of states. Voters would get to see candidates in action and tested on the campaign trail. The candidate with the most appeal to a broad spectrum of the party would emerge victorious.

While primaries had been around for decades, it was in the 1970s that they finally became the main mechanism through which candidates were selected. Initially, Democrats elevated the role of the primary in the early 1970s by ensuring that primary victories dictate who won the nomination rather than party bosses. Republicans soon followed.

But the system has not worked as intended. New bosses have replaced old bosses, gradually reducing the role and choices of voters. The first source of authority has been that party bosses were replaced with media bosses. As candidates attempted to reach as many voters as possible, the media played a bigger role in determining who gained the label of front-runner and whose candidacy seemed doomed. Candidates needed coverage on television to make themselves widely known and win the support of voters in any given state, giving an advantage to politicians who came across well on air.

At the same time, voters heard less and less of candidates because they were only given a few sound bites on each broadcast.

The second force in picking candidates has been party activists who tend to come out to rallies, to organize and to vote at higher rates than moderate voters. As a whole, activists tend to be far more partisan than average party voters. As a result, candidates learned quickly that they had to play to the extremes of the political spectrum. They came under intense pressure to make promises -- which were later difficult to retract -- that play to narrow segments of the party. Although the activists who shaped primaries did not necessarily represent the views of a majority in the party, they often had enough clout to determine the outcome.

The final new kingmaker in the selection process has been the fundraiser. The power of money has increased over the past decade as Democratic and Republican candidates have abandoned the public finance system put into place after Watergate. That system, which restricted how much private money a candidate could accept if they wanted to receive public funds, is now gone.

As candidates rejected public money, they entered into an ongoing scramble for dollars to pay for advertising and other means of spreading their message. A key measure of success in recent years has become the amount of money a candidate could raise -- stories about fundraising totals have become as important as polls or votes. If donors are not forthcoming, even before any votes are cast, a candidate often feels the pressure to step down.

While early vetting can be useful, too much decision-making now takes place before the voting begins. Decisions are being made on the thinnest of measures that do not necessarily reflect what voters in the party would prefer, or who might be the strongest campaigner or president, as much as on who reporters find interesting or which candidate fundraisers perceive as stronger bets.

The fate of Pawlenty reveals the potential costs of this system. Even though he came across poorly in two debates, he may represent a more moderate, and politically mainstream view, than Bachmann -- and he has much more governing experience.

In the early 1970s, political reformers realized that the candidate selection system was broken and that this hurt the democratic process. In 2011, the time has come to re-examine the process again and to figure out how the views of mainstream voters can be brought back into presidential politics.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.