Primary Obligations: Why the Democrats Should Fix the Nominating System

August 26, 2008


By David Greenberg- originally published @ DISSENT MAGAZINE

SUPPORTERS of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for all their differences, have in the course of this emotional primary season come to view the Democratic Party’s nominating process as seriously flawed. To be sure, Obama’s enthusiasts would seem to have little reason to complain, while Clinton’s own errors, tactical and strategic, wounded her at least as much as any kinks in the system. Yet, it became apparent this past spring that in such a tight race, with the candidates effectively tied, various procedural injustices that might otherwise be waved off—the length of the season, the (theoretical) king-making power of the superdelegates, the decisive influence of caucuses and open primaries, the effective disfranchisement of two elector-rich swing states—influenced and perhaps altered the race’s outcome. Even if the candidates muster the obligatory shows of unity this summer, at this writing (May) it seems that the party will have to address the procedural pitfalls exposed this year.

Yet any reassessment will fail if reformers once again act like generals fighting the last war. After the fiasco of 1968, the Democrats, led by George McGovern, awarded activists and key interest groups much more power—turning the party into congeries of activists and constituent groups led by George McGovern. When in 1972 McGovern held up to America a picture of the party that failed to reflect its breadth and moderation, he ensured his defeat. His rout in turn engendered James Hunt’s 1982 commission that created the system of party-chosen superdelegates—party regulars whose convention votes could keep radicals or mischief-makers from hijacking the party’s choice. But this reform met criticism as early as 1984, when the supers helped Walter Mondale repulse Gary Hart’s primary challenge.

The current dissatisfaction stems largely from the extraordinary closeness of this year’s race. As the Florida recount fight of 2000 showed, in a virtual tie, both sides will scour the selection mechanisms to glean the meagerest advantage—or to explain away defeat. Plainly, a slightly different system could have produced a different winner. The economist Kenneth Arrow once proved that different ways of choosing among candidates, each of which meets objective criteria of fairness, can nonetheless yield divergent results. No single, fairest set of election rules can exist.

Any system, then, will suffer accusations of unfairness. Before 2008, pundits harrumphed that conventions had become empty, stage-managed coronations. This year they warned of the looming disaster of an open convention. Before 2008, they bemoaned the pride of place that the parties meekly handed over to Iowa and New Hampshire. This year, those states’ primacy drew little comment, because Clinton and Obama won one apiece. For all these reasons, any conversation about reform should focus not on onetime flukes requiring mechanistic fixes but on underlying problems. To that end, it is not too early to offer a few preliminary thoughts.

Selection and Election
WHAT SHOULD the nomination process seek to achieve? In an age of thin connections to parties, we usually think of primary races as the first stages in an election—the semifinals in a political Wimbledon. But choosing a party nominee isn’t the same thing as choosing a public official. The party’s selection of a nominee is not, strictly speaking, an election. We belong to a polity by necessity; we affiliate with a party by choice. A party is a self-constituting body of relatively like-minded citizens who unite to promote shared interests within a polity. It has its own health and interests to consider: maintaining voters’ loyalties, shaping its identity, demonstrating its strength of purpose. Parties can thus devise their own carefully calibrated ways of making choices. They don’t have to hew to an ideal of more direct democracy that we aspire to follow in electing public officials.

This is not to suggest that parties are wholly private associations. They aren’t. They play a fundamental role in representative democracy, and their practices are intertwined with the state. Voters may lack the means to participate meaningfully in politics if the major parties exclude them. The Supreme Court has, therefore, regulated party activities, interpreting all-white primaries, for example, as unconstitutional, and striking down certain ballot-access laws. Nonetheless, the court has on the whole granted parties a wide berth of autonomy in setting their rules. It has overturned, for instance, state laws mandating or prohibiting “open” primaries, in which nonparty members are allowed to vote.

The history of the presidential nomination process helps us to understand parties as relatively autonomous associative bodies. Over the years, parties have used a wide range of nomination methods, in most of which the regular citizen had little or no role. Originally, party members within the House of Representatives caucused to make nominations. This process crumbled in 1824, when the Tennessee state legislature, on its own authority, nominated Andrew Jackson, who went on to outpoll the nominee of the House congressional caucus, William Crawford. State legislative caucuses became the new seat of nominations, but their reign, too, was short-lived, as the 1832 election spawned a third method, the national party convention. Although more inclusive than the caucuses, conventions weren’t exactly paragons of popular democracy either; for the balance of the century, state caucuses or party bosses—not the public—picked the delegates who attended.

Progressive Era pressures to democratize inaugurated a new regime, the partial primary system. Disdainful of the conventions’ backroom deal-making, reformers sought to transfer power from the bosses to voters. Over time primaries gained influence, especially with the arrival of television, but only after 1968 and the McGovern reforms did they send a majority of delegates to the summer conventions. And even then, under this latest regime, tinkering has persisted. Party officers regularly shuffled the dates and order of the primaries. They established a “Super Tuesday” in 1984 to counterbalance the outsized influence of the New Hampshire and Iowa contests and more recently let various states elbow each other to the front of the calendar to avoid irrelevance. These efforts, it should be noted, have hardly been exercises in democratic idealism, crafted to better capture some platonic will of the voters that had otherwise eluded expression. Pragmatic course corrections, they sought to ensure that the public perception of the voters’ will would better serve the party itself.

Several conclusions follow. First, democratizing pressures have consistently pushed party leaders to cede power to wider pools of participants. (The other groups that gained power have been image consultants, wealthy donors, and influential figures in the media—a story for another day.) Second, despite the increasing inclusiveness, nominations have never been a wholly plebiscitary affair; party regulars have always kept a hand in shaping the choice. Finally, the inconstancy of the nomination process—exhibiting a rapid turnover of regimes that rivals the Italian government—underscores the great autonomy that parties have always enjoyed in adapting to historical circumstances.

All of this suggests that reforms can and should take into account the different—and sometimes competing—goals of democracy and autonomy, of ensuring that the process sufficiently reflects voters’ wishes and ensuring that the party protects its own interests. In this light, the controversies of 2008 should be examined.

THE FIRST dispute this year involves the denial by the Democratic National Committee of convention credentials to the Michigan and Florida delegations. In fine-tuning the primary calendar, the DNC wanted only Nevada (Western and heavily Hispanic) and South Carolina (Southern and heavily black) to join Iowa and New Hampshire at the front of the pack. But Michigan and Florida jumped the line. Although disfranchisement had been threatened, and all the candidates had accepted its possible eventuality, many insiders doubted that such an austere punishment would truly come to pass. “Despite the vote by the rules panel of the Democratic National Committee, some party leaders and officials said they believed that the delegates would eventually be seated at the convention,” said a December AP story, offering a caveat typical of the stories written about Michigan and Florida.

The closeness of the race kept that from happening. Clinton won big in both states, Obama having removed his name from the Michigan ballot. Had these primaries’ delegates counted as the race went along, she would have gained a lode of delegates and much-coveted momentum. Compounding the damage to her prospects was the media’s near-blackout of her romp in Florida, where she and Obama had competed on level ground—amazingly, the New York Times didn’t even mention her victory on page one—although the popular sentiment expressed at the polls that day signaled a cache of support that was nothing if not newsworthy. (Historically, “beauty contest” primaries have always drawn coverage despite their purely symbolic importance.) Worse than any harm it caused to Clinton’s campaign, however, the fiasco became an embarrassment for the party, planting the nagging thought that Obama achieved his momentum only by a stroke of luck. (Imagine if it had been Virginia and Illinois that jumped the gun.) Yet for all the agony the error caused, it seems unlikely to recur. The party will surely rethink its calendar, but no state will court irrelevance and frustration as Michigan and Florida did this year.

Where Clinton’s supporters fumed about the erasure of her natural edge in Michigan and Florida, Obama’s camp at times protested a second controversial feature of the process: its duration. Particularly when his chances of winning seemed strong, Obama seemed resentful about having to run all the way to the finish line. Although some of this may have been personal pique, the display of weariness was surely tactical too. As early as February, his backers were calling for Clinton to withdraw—a ploy they scotched after it helped her to don the underdog mantle. Yet as the weeks went by without her surpassing his lead in either pledged delegates or votes, and as the odds of her doing so diminished, they continued to claim her candidacy was “weakening” their man, perhaps preparing to scapegoat her should he lose to John McCain in November.

But the notion that the hard-fought race wounded Obama lacked firm support. That the politics of his former pastor and flaps over his affinities with the working class surfaced when they did—after he’d built a strong lead but before the fall campaign—served him well. Moreover, until 2008, the standard complaint wasn’t that races dragged on too long but that they wrapped up too soon; the truncated season deprived many voters of any say in the outcome and sometimes failed to vet the eventual winner. This year some have urged a return to winner-take-all primaries, hoping that the Democrats could choose a nominee as rapidly as the Republicans (who use that system). But winner-take-all primaries can prolong the season. They make it easier for a challenger to come from behind, because upsets in a few big states can upend the candidates’ delegate tallies.

OF LONGER-term concern is a third aspect of the process: the reliance on caucuses, which fifteen states used this year. Caucuses force voters to convene at a single time and place and plead their cases openly. If you imagine the Davenport, Iowa, high school gym as an Athenian agora, it’s a model that might seem more exciting than the primaries’ thinner but broader form of democracy—in which a hurried voter can pop into the community center on the drive home. But unfairnesses riddle the caucuses. No secret-ballot safeguards against social intimidation; no absentee ballots are allowed. The events’ sheer length deters the time-pressed wage earner, the single mother, the ailing grandfather. Activists, students, and better-educated professionals have an upper hand. For Clinton, the caucuses’ influence was especially detrimental, because they excluded many of her core voters. But whatever her personal investment in criticizing them, their invidious weighting of votes seems increasingly hard to defend.

A Supermall?
ALL THE controversies mentioned so far raise the question of how “democratic” the nomination process should be. To pursue that question further, we need to unpack the connotations of the term. “Democratic” has become a marketing buzzword, slapped on processes unrelated to popular sovereignty, from blogs and the Internet to open-source software and American Idol. In talking about a more “democratic” nomination process, we conflate two different things. One is making the process more egalitarian, ensuring that some voters’ preferences don’t count more than others—such as by abolishing caucuses. The second is something quite different: continuing the historical trend of shifting power from insiders to ordinary voters. To this end, there has been much talk of scuttling the superdelegate system—another piece of the machinery now under scrutiny.

Obama successfully pressed the case that the superdelegate mechanism is inherently elitist and undemocratic. Superdelegates should not be free agents, his team argued; they should be bound to vote for the candidate who turned out to be, it so happened, Barack Obama. To be sure, the rationales for binding the supers to a particular candidate shifted. First, when Obama was seeking to pry loose black superdelegates backing Clinton, his camp claimed the supers should endorse whichever candidate won their districts. Next, as Obama rolled up his ten straight February wins, they called for supers to align behind the winner of their home states. Finally, as he seemed likely to clinch the popular vote, they urged supers to follow the Democratic electorate writ large. In the event, this inconsistency scarcely mattered, as few supers dared defy Obama’s argument that they shouldn’t “overturn the will of the voters”—thereby laying bare as toothless the very system simultaneously decried as insidious.

The argument that superdelegates should merely mimic the majority of the pledged delegates doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Doing so would turn the superdelegates into superfluous delegates; there would be no reason to have created them. Even more important, a powerful case exists for preserving and even strengthening their role.

This case rests on recognizing that, however appealing a more plebiscitary system might be, a more urgent imperative now confronts Democrats: the need for party cohesion and commitment. Parties should always be courting new voters. But they must also guard against turning the nomination process into a supermall, in which millions of people drop by to visit but none feels a deep personal attachment. Indeed, given how inclusive the process has become, control by bosses and insiders seems a less immediate threat than the possibility of the party’s being captured by groups that have shown no long-standing commitment to it as an institution.

One such group comprises those often called “independents”—voters who either hover near the political center or are simply not very ideologically oriented and don’t see the parties as instruments for representing their views. Since the Second World War the parties’ hold on voters has weakened, and despite some signs of a resurgence, the portion of the voters who are independents remains higher in some polls—37 percent, according to a March Pew poll—than the portion aligned with either party.

These unaffiliated voters have no investment in being Democrats. This tenuous connection distinguishes them from core blocs of loyal regulars who have built a historical and ongoing bond with the party. Blacks, Jews, women, labor, seniors, gays—these constituencies support Democrats because they believe in the party, because the party has, through changing weather, fought for civil rights, civil liberties, sexual equality, decent wages, Social Security, and other goals they cherish. Within the primaries, such voters are likely to consider, if only at a generalized level, which candidates have been good party soldiers. 

In contrast, independents who drop in on party primaries are more apt to regard their choice as Coke versus Pepsi—deciding on the basis of a candidate’s personality, the issues at stake, or a passing mood.

A second group has been voting Democratic lately, too: the activist left that, unlike many mainstream liberals, is untroubled by figures like Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan. A mix of New Left Baby Boomers and “netroots” activists who came of age and were radicalized under the current administration, this left in recent years has looked back on Bill Clinton’s third way liberalism—despite its revitalization of the party—as sell-out centrism. Partly because they believed that Ralph Nader’s third-party bid in 2000 helped to place George W. Bush in the White House, these leftists have generally opted to work within the Democratic Party. But by 2008 they were directing their ire less toward Bush (a lame duck) or even John McCain than toward the chimera of the Democratic “establishment”—a phantasmagoria of high-priced consultants, cynical pollsters, shadowy lobbyists, and craven politicians. (Party regulars are more inclined to appreciate that without a real establishment—the human infrastructure whose daily attentions allow the party to win elections and implement programs—no mass organization can thrive.) Although some movement newcomers possess only an embryonic politics and might become loyal Democrats, others seem happy to use the party in the short run while harboring a suspicion or even hostility to it deep down. In some quarters, one hears wishful talk that the Web itself might somehow replace political organization, rendering parties as we know them obsolete.

Like Howard Dean in 2004, who governed Vermont as a liberal-to-moderate Democrat but permitted himself to be defined by the activists who rallied to his antiwar broadsides, Barack Obama has struggled with how closely to hold the movement left. At first he kept some distance. He pitched himself as a reformist Mugwump, practically a centrist, focused on high-minded matters of changing the tone in Washington. In that incarnation he won over upscale white liberals, independents, and even a smattering of Republicans. As his campaign heated up, though, the activists climbed on board. Obama’s youthful stint as a community organizer offered credibility, while his rhetoric was capacious enough to be read as closet leftism. John Edwards’s exit from the race on January 30 helped the alliance, since the activists tended to see Clinton, the remaining alternative, as a corrupt Washington creature. Harnessing these activists’ energy might have been a shrewd tactic by Obama, but by the closing months of the primary season, he seemed in peril of becoming captive to them, much as Dean had. Polling data showed that in the later primaries Obama lost ground, not just among rank-and-file Democrats but also among voters who identified as moderate or conservative. Maintaining balance between centrist independents and left-wing independents would prove hard.

Clinton, meanwhile, found her base not merely among working-class whites, as was frequently noted, but more broadly among registered Democrats, longtime party stalwarts. While Obama performed best among leftists and centrist or nonideological (Perot-style) independents, she prevailed among mainstream-liberal and centrist party regulars. While most of Obama’s primary victories occurred in “open” contests, she fared better in those limited to Democrats. Indeed, some preliminary efforts to extrapolate from voting returns and exit polls suggested that overall she may have won a majority of actual Democrats’ votes—a stunning and little-noted fact.

IRRESPECTIVE OF Clinton’s merits as a candidate, it would be unsettling if, as seems possible, the candidate preferred by most Democrats netted fewer pledged delegates overall. Such an outcome would suggest the need not only to reinforce the superdelegate system but also to consider the abolition of that controversial piece of the nomination process, open primaries. The case for open primaries supposes that independents who participate will select moderate candidates who are more viable in a general election. But since 1992 Democrats have won over independents with nominees who also enjoyed favor with the regular membership. On the other hand, open primaries risk handing over the party’s choice to outsiders who reject party membership because they see the party as either too left-wing or too “establishment.” At this historical moment, that logic recommends entertaining the idea of abolishing open primaries along with caucuses.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Democratic Party underwent a painful but fruitful argument over how to remain viable in national races. Some factions wanted to focus on courting upscale professionals of the sort who’d voted for the independent John Anderson in 1980. Others saw the key in reclaiming more culturally conservative “Reagan Democrats.” Still others prescribed renewed economic populism to reinvigorate the base. Fashioning a forward-looking synthesis of all three approaches, Bill Clinton rendered many of the old arguments moot, even as he resorted to strategic ambiguities of his own. But in reaction to him—and to George W. Bush—a new rift has opened. Instead of dividing party members by variations in ideology, the new conflict pits party regulars against those who would use it instrumentally, whether on behalf of a movement or to address momentary needs. No decisions say more about a party than the presidential candidates it chooses. How it makes those decisions is a difficult question, more complex than this preliminary analysis can resolve. But the question ought best be considered in light of the current rift between the party’s loyalists and its skeptics—a rift that in the years to come seems likely only to grow wider.


David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, a columnist for Slate, and the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. Homepage Photo: Obama – Center for American Progress; Clinton – Caleb Williams (Wikimedia / Creative Commons).


One comment

  1. The twentieth is the era of the journalist.JamesRestonJames Reston

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