Real-World Presidential Nominations

Let Reality TV’s producers test the candidates

With billionaire Donald J. Trump apparently running away with the the Republican presidential nomination, recriminations and retoolings among the party establishment are underway. Elites will undoubtedly seek to return to a more sober, party-managed nomination process. This would surely lead to less interesting snooze-worthy contests with less attention, participation, and information.

Instead, parties should turn to the experts who already know how to pluck talent from large pools of self-nominated aspirants and have successfully engaged millions of Americans in the process: “Reality TV” producers.

Here’s reality for you. The televised talent searches pioneered by shows such as “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” have a better track record of winnowing and identifying exceptional people than the parties’ current nomination processes.

Reality TV shows would actually provide voters more real information about the candidates than the current nominating process.

What if we constructed a nomination contest in which candidates had to actually demonstrate their muster through a sequence of carefully-constructed reality TV-show style challenges? The result could scarcely be worse.

Let’s consider what we might learn from the following:

The Voice: Presidential Edition: In an attempt to set-aside latent biases, undecided voters will hear the voices of hidden anonymized candidates articulating their position on a variety of key issues. Voters will use buttons to award points to their favored candidates without the influence of advertising, horse-race media coverage, or even considerations of the candidate’s race or gender.

American Ninja Candidate: Candidates’ concentration and grip strength and would be tested as they navigate an obstacle course in which they must shake hands with as many undecided voters as possible. Points would be awarded for the quantity of handshakes. A judges panel would award additional “charisma” points for genuine embraces of the unemployed or distressed. Points would be lost for conspicuous use of hand sanitizer.

Top Candidate: Modeled on “Top Chef,” candidates’ creativity and leadership would be challenged as they attempt to construct a 20-foot-high wall from raw construction materials before time expires. Candidates would get extra points for teamwork and staying on budget. Points would be lost if the candidate attempted to use undocumented labor or for unsuccessful attempts to shift the cost to other governments.

Dancing with the Candidates: Candidates would be paired with coaches who will help them prepare for a high-stakes performance at complex multilateral summit. At the end of a week’s preparation, they will deliver a toast at a state dinner, a policy address, and convene a conciliatory photo with former sworn enemies. Judges would score the candidates on persuasion, charisma, message discipline, deference to international customs, and “it factor.”

Candidate Bachelor(ette): Candidates would take turns spending an intimate evening with an undecided voter. Events would include a moon-lit discussion of trade policy, carnival rides at a state fair, a briefing aboard a replica of Air Force One, and a simulated beer summit. At the “rose ceremony,” winning candidates would be selected based on charm, communication skills, personal ambitions, and demonstrated commitment to the voter’s family values.

Fear Factor: Presidential Edition: Most of the GOP debates have been riddled with egregious overstatements about basic settled facts and cross-accusations of “liar, liar.” In this challenge, we would gauge candidate’s grasp of settled facts by having them answer questions posed by the “PolitiFact” team while suspended 100 feet in the air over a tank of scorpions. While naked.

Silly? Sure. Yet these challenges would arguably produce more useful information about candidates real qualifications than our current sequence of poorly-moderated side-by-side TV appearances. When candidates’ performances are assessed largely by pundits obsessed with fundraising totals, misleading poll numbers, and the quantity of landed punches, voters are left frustrated and uninformed.

Twenty years ago, political scientist Samuel Popkin pointed out that most of the information voters learn about politics is picked up as a byproduct of real activities voters already pursue in their daily life. The current nomination process is completely disconnected with real voters’ concerns, and requires virtually no demonstration of the actual characteristics that might indicate a person’s fitness for the job as president.

We need more reality in our nomination process, not less.


Andrew J. Cohen holds a master’s from the University of Florida’s political campaigns program and is a veteran strategist at Forum One, an Alexandria, VA digital agency that crafts solutions for influential organizations. His favorite reality TV show is whatever his wife is watching. Twitter: @andrewjcohen