Monday, June 02, 2008

A Dialogue on the Presidential Nomination Process

At 10:40 PM 6/1/2008, Jeanie wrote:
>Thank you for this posting. I have been reading comments on Hillary's blog site. I've been listening to Obama supporters. I'm VERY concerned.
>First, let me say that I've been a Hillary supporter since 1993, when she presented her proposal on health care reform. I've said many times since then that she was right, and we're paying the price now as a nation for not listening to her. I voted for Hillary in the California primary, not because I don't like Barrack Obama - I like him a lot - but because I felt she was the best qualified, most knowledgeable of the two. That said:
>I am deeply troubled by the feverish, angry loyalty that is being displayed on her website blog. It's great for people to be inspired by a candidate, and to work for that candidate's election. And I'm sure the more involved one gets, the more emotional it all becomes. However, it is a problem for our party and our nation if people are only committed to individual candidates, and not to the principles of the Democratic Party itself. We are supposed to be choosing OUR nominee here - whichever one it is. I'm starting to feel like a lot of people are hijacking our party for the sake of their own candidate, and no one else - in both camps. The length of the divide, in terms of time, may not be a factor at all. I think it is just making the problem visible. Someone needs to get to these people, and soon. Someone they'll listen to. They need to understand that the venom in each camp is going to lead to yet another pathetic Republican administration, against the values and life's work of both Clinton and Obama.
>All right. So good luck with that! (I'll try to do my part in San Benito County. But there needs to be a national effort.)

Dear Jeanie,

You raise some excellent points. I took a long time to decide on a candidate. I decided for John Edwards shortly before the California primary, and within an hour of mailing my ballot, I learned that he had just withdrawn from the race. I am not emotionally tied to either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, but only emotionally tied to the victory of one of them in November. Also, as a political scientist, I tend to focus more on the political process than on the candidates and the issues.

So, as to process, having been disenfranchised by Edwards' withdrawal, I suddenly saw the utility of having a ranked ballot for presidential candidates. There are two good reasons to support this. Increasing numbers of citizens are voting by mail, so what happened to me is likely to become a more common occurrence. Also, even if there were no voting by mail and everyone cast their vote on election day, many people would be disenfranchised because the Democratic Party requires a candidate to reach a certain threshold percentage of the popular vote, below which, no delegates are apportioned. If your candidate doesn't reach the threshold, your vote is not counted toward the allocation of any delegate, and effectively, your vote is thrown away.

The Democratic Party has another mechanism for restricting democracy in its presidential nomination system: superdelegates.

I am often asked why these antidemocratic mechanisms exist, and I think that it is important to understand the history of how we got to where we are today. As I explain in my book, it started in Chicago in 1968. When the party nominated Hubert Humphrey, a man who entered not a single presidential primary, and a riot erupted outside the convention, the party concluded that its nomination system needed a massive overhaul. The party tapped George McGovern to chair a commission to study and to make recommendations. McGovern saw where the commission was heading before it issued its report, and he left the commission to declare his candidacy for the 1972 nomination. He based his campaign strategy on his insider's knowledge of the new rules that the commission was likely to recommend and that the party was likely to adopt, thus he stole a march on all of the other candidates who were playing by the old rules and whose strategies were about to become obsolete. As McGovern foresaw, the commission recommended that states abandon caucuses and institute primaries, in order to reduce the influence of state and local party bosses and empower the rank and file party members. Also, the winner-take-all system was abolished, and from that time on, all delegates were to be allocated according to the percentage of the popular vote, with low thresholds. The modern era of presidential nomination was born, and 1972 was to be the most democratic process by which the Democratic Party would choose its nominee.

The result, of course, was an unmitigated disaster. McGovern easily captured the nomination, and lost to Richard Nixon in one of history's biggest landslides. The Democratic Party went back to the drawing board, concluding that too much democracy was not a good thing. A new commission, chaired by Morley Winograd, made a number of problematic recommendations. First, it enshrined the "first in the nation" status of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Second, it permitted the dwindling number of caucus states to raise their thresholds to 20 percent, and primary states to 25 percent. Third, it created superdelegates as 10 percent of the total number of delegates required to nominate a presidential candidate, so that party leaders would have voting power at the national convention and exert some influence over the nomination outcome.

As an aside, I should mention that a consequence of the proliferation of primary states is that campaigning is more expensive, and candidates must create huge, ad hoc political machines to compete for the nomination, and the party machinery is barely in play; thus, activists' principal loyalty is to their candidates, not to the party. So, when you say that you feel that "a lot of people are hijacking our party for the sake of their own candidate, and no one else - in both camps," this is a phenomenon that has been building for several decades, but has only now become apparent because, in a system designed to produce a nominee before most people know what's going on, we accidentally have a truly competitive nomination race in 2008.

There have been other commissions that have tinkered around the edges in the course of the intervening 40 years, lowering and raising the threshold and superdelegate percentages, but that is essentially the system we have today. Often, this tinkering has been done on the basis of the perceived self-interest of the moment, or on an incomplete and faulty analysis of the most recent election outcome, with the result that the party often bumbles from one disaster to the next. A case in point is that now, because of the protracted struggle between Clinton and Obama, party elites are grumbling about going back to winner-take-all primaries, which the Republican Party never abolished. For those who are all stoked up about one candidate or the other, my advice would be to watch what the party is going to do to the process for 2012. Is the party going to go back to the past and become more like the Republican Party? Is the solution to have an even less democratic process than we already have? I believe that such knee-jerk ideas are likely to produce future disasters for the party. I believe that the solution is more democracy, not less, an intelligently-designed system rather than a few timid ideas kluged onto a successively kluged process. The McGovern revolution solved a huge set of problems for the party, but it also produced a set of unintended consequences that the party has never dealt with in a scientific manner. I believe that the democratic solution is to return to the principles of the McGovern revolution and to craft a process that will permit these principles to be fully manifested. Let's believe in democracy, and let's practice it for change.

Best regards,

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