In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Presidential Candidate Selection in Comparative Perspective

  • Introduction
  • Background and Overview

Political Science Presidential Candidate Selection in Comparative Perspective
John Polga-Hecimovich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0257


Presidential candidate selection comprises the processes by which political elites, political parties, and/or voters choose presidential candidates from among a larger pool of potential nominees. As Giovanni Sartori and others have noted, the selection of candidates to compete in elections may be the core activity that universally distinguishes parties from other political organizations. This activity is closely related to but analytically distinct from the process of candidate recruitment, which is how potential entrants are enlisted to compete for office. Whereas recruitment defines the pool of potential candidates, selection concerns how candidates are named on a ballot. There are generally two main types of candidate selection as well as a third category that combines elements of the other two: (1) elite nomination, where a national or regional party leader, or a group of party leaders, nominates a fellow leader or otherwise decides on a suitable candidate; (2) primary elections, some type of preliminary election to select a candidate; and (3) the “invisible primary,” the pre-primary stages of presidential nomination campaigns in which party elites and other political actors informally shape nomination outcomes. Although presidential candidate selection is a central element of political parties and the electoral process, the amount of systematic cross-national work on the topic is lacking. There is ample literature on primaries in the United States, but its utility for comparative work is in many regards limited due to the uniqueness of the US two-party system and selection process (e.g., the existence of caucuses, the long-form and sequential nature of the presidential primaries) as well as the literature’s lack of attention to generalizing beyond the US case. However, the expansion of primary elections in other presidential systems—primarily Latin America, where presidential democracies are concentrated but parts of presidential and semi-presidential Africa and Asia as well—has resulted in new and exciting research questions and data with which to answer those questions. To wit, the US literature is largely preoccupied with explaining the effects of one specific type of candidate selection mechanism, primary elections, on things such as voter behavior, candidate qualities and characteristics, and representation. Comparative scholarship on the other hand does not assume a single candidate nomination process and boasts a far greater sample size of cases, affording it the ability to ask how and when countries adopt different candidate selection mechanisms in addition to exploring their various outcomes. The survival and deepening of third wave presidential democracies should allow scholars to develop and more rigorously test novel theories of both the causes and consequences of distinct presidential selection mechanisms.

Background and Overview

Until the 2000s, the general candidate selection literature was largely confined to the US case (e.g., Ceaser 1979, Jackson and Crotty 1996). Even nominally comparative accounts focused largely on the United States and leadership selection in established parliamentary systems (Matthews 1973, Gallagher and Marsh 1988). This is due in part to the uneven record of democracy in many presidential systems and their relative unfamiliarity with primary elections as opposed to elite nomination as a candidate selection mechanism. However, candidate nomination elections are increasingly used to select presidential and legislative candidates in new democracies, resulting in a mini-surge of scholarship examining their origin and effects (e.g., Gjerde 2005, Field and Siavelis 2008, Siavelis and Morgenstern 2008, Freidenberg and Alcántara 2009, Hazan and Rahat 2010). The chief contribution of this literature has been to broaden scholars’ understanding of the empirical variation in candidate selection mechanisms and theorization of their origins and consequences. This comparative work is also able to highlight just how much of an outlier the United States is, with its drawn-out primary season for presidential candidates and an array of primary types by state. Siavelis and Morgenstern 2008 presents perhaps the most thorough contribution to cross-national candidate selection to date, presenting a comprehensive theoretical framework and a wide array of case studies. It should be noted that a great deal of candidate selection research focuses specifically on legislative races and contributes to knowledge of presidential party nominations; nonetheless, these works are not included here unless they directly engage presidential nomination.

  • Ceaser, James W. Presidential Selection: Theory and Development. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

    Discusses the theories of presidential selection offered by leading American statesmen from the Founders and Thomas Jefferson to Martin Van Buren and Woodrow Wilson and examines the development of the presidential selection process in the United States.

  • Gallagher, Michael, and Michael Marsh. Candidate Selection in Comparative Perspective: The Secret Garden of Politics. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1988.

    A collection of nine (mainly parliamentary) country studies that examines candidate selection in Europe and Japan. It describes the methods by which parties select their candidates, analyzes the factors that influence the form of selection used, and considers the consequences of candidate selection.

  • Gjerde, Camilla. “Presidential Recruitment. Selection of Presidential Candidates in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” In National Conference in Political Science. Bergen, Norway, 2005.

    This conference paper uses comparative presidential recruitment and selection data from Latin America, Africa, and Asia to show that candidate selection has become more inclusive during the past thirty years in all three regions. The article concludes that two determinants of this trend are increasingly institutionalized party systems and a ban on presidential reelection.

  • Field, Bonnie N., and Peter Siavelis. “Candidate Selection Procedures in Transitional Polities. A Research Note.” Party Politics 14.5 (2008): 620–639.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354068808093393

    Despite focusing more on legislative candidate selection, this piece still contributes to the cross-national literature on presidential selection by distinguishing between transitional and institutionalized democracies. Specifically, it explains how and why transitional polities differently constrain the choice of candidate selection procedures compared to institutionalized democracies.

  • Freidenberg, Flavia, and Manuel Alcántara. Selección de candidatos, política partidista y rendimiento democrático en América Latina. Mexico City: Tribunal Electoral del Distrito Federal, 2009.

    The Spanish-language compendium presents work by the world’s top scholars of candidate selection (many of whom contributed to the Siavelis and Morgenstern edited volume). Through a mixture of primarily Latin American case studies and more broadly analytical chapters, the authors explore causes in the empirical variation in nomination mechanisms across Latin America as well as their difference effects on candidates, parties, and democracy.

  • Hazan, Reuven Y., and Gideon Rahat. Democracy Within Parties. Candidate Selection Methods and their Political Consequences. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199572540.001.0001

    Conducts an in-depth analysis of the consequences of different candidate selection methods on democracy. The first part delineates candidate selection methods based on four major dimensions: candidacy, the selectorate, decentralization, and voting versus appointment systems. The second part analyzes the political consequences of different candidate selection methods according to four important aspects of democracy: participation, representation, competition, and responsiveness.

  • Jackson, John S., III, and William J. Crotty. The Politics of Presidential Selection. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

    This book is aimed at an undergraduate audience. Jackson and Crotty take a broad approach to presidential elections covering the historical nominating process in the United States, the modern nomination process, national party conventions, and the general presidential election process.

  • Matthews, Donald R., ed. Perspectives on Presidential Selection. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1973.

    This is a pioneering collection of seven original articles examining presidential selection, three of which are comparative studies.

  • Rahat, Gideon, and Reuven Y. Hazan. “Candidate Selection Methods: An Analytical Framework.” Party Politics 7.3 (2001): 297–322.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354068801007003003

    Part of a special issue on candidate selection, this article presents a comprehensive classification of different candidate selection methods, defines what is meant by their democratization, and offers an analytical framework for cross-national comparisons. It distinguishes four dimensions to classify candidate selection methods: inclusiveness or exclusiveness of candidacy; inclusiveness or exclusiveness of candidacy of party selectorates; level of decentralization; and nature of the voting/appointment systems.

  • Siavelis, Peter, and Scott Morgenstern. Pathways to Power: Political Recruitment and Candidate Selection in Latin America. University Park: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2008.

    The most significant comparative politics scholarship examining candidate selection. Contributors use the variety of candidate selection mechanisms across Latin America to examine how they impact the type of candidate nominated and how this structures political behavior. The introductory chapter creates a theoretical framework for the country studies by theorizing how formal institutional rules combine and interact with contextual situations and party-level variables to determine selection processes.

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