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In Defense of the Democratic Party Nominating Process

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

Henry Walther



June 8th, 2016

For the last four months, Democratic pundits, candidates, and voters alike have been lambasting the Democratic Party’s nominating process. No matter what measuring stick you use, people are far from content. Look at the Bernie Sander’s campaign list of grievances- closed primaries, southern states voting first, superdelegates, long voting lines, difficult methods of voter registration, the list goes on. Many of the critiques are fair and reasonable enough to warrant a serious discussion, so let’s have a discussion.


First we need to establish the purpose of a nominating process. Few would argue that the purpose is anything other than picking the strongest candidate to represent the party’s ideals and values in a general election and become the leader of the party. That’s the end goal. But the means to achieve the end goal is where things get messy. Is the most effective process one that is absolutely (lowercase d) democratic, with open primaries, multi day windows of voting, and same day registration? This system would also require that all states vote on the same day, to ensure someone’s vote in California mattered the same as an Iowan's. Or maybe the best process is like what happened in the old days, when powerful party bosses gathered in smoke-filled Tammany Hall to deliberate and decide the fate of the nation.

My goal is to defend the status quo nominating process, but first I must make one point clear- majoritarian democratic methods are not necessarily the most effective methods.


A strictly majoritarian process only tests one facet of a candidate’s aptitude- appealing to the general public. While that is certainly hugely important, most likely preeminently important, it is not everything. Presidents don't wait to make decisions until the polls say 51% of the country agrees with them, they have to use other means of wheeling and dealing to get things done. That’s the definition of politics. And that’s what I believe the current primary system does a great job of deciding- the strongest politician.


Think about it this way- if you are going to measure the best overall athlete, would it be sufficient have them only run a sprint? Of course not, you’d make them do a variety of different athletic events to test their overall aptitude. In the same way, the Democratic Party’s nominating process is a political ironman, testing many facets of a candidate's strength as a nominee.






President Obama doing push-ups

Photo: Getty Images


Ah, this has been an interesting discussion throughout the primary season. Superdelegates are a collection of 719 people who make up 15% of the total delegates that decide the Party’s nominee. They are party activists and former congressmen and governors, basically the political “establishment”. Superdelegates are unique because they are not bound to any public voting, they get to chose the candidate they support as an individual. Bernie Sanders and his supporters were initially distraught over the superdelegate system since many pledged their support to Hillary Clinton very early in the campaign. But now that superdelegates are the only mathematical way Bernie could win, he is singing a different tune.


The argument against superdelegates is essentially that it undermines the will of the people and gives too much power to the party elite. In reality, superdelegates have always voted in line with the public so to date, they have not played a deciding factor. Look back at 2008 where even though Hillary Clinton initially had most of the superdelegates, they eventually flipped to support Obama. But even if they did change the outcome of an election, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Here are two reasons why superdelegates are on balance, beneficial for the nominating process.


First, let’s remember that the process should test different aspects of a candidate's aptitude. Once a nominee becomes President they will be working every day with politicians and “the establishment” of both parties aka the same type of people as superdelegates. Being able to sell yourself and your policies to other politicians is an invaluable skill and one that is put to the test through the superdelegate system. It doesn’t matter if 100% of the public supports your positions, if you can’t persuade your fellow representatives, then none of your agenda will ever be implemented. Many Sanders supporters balked at the fact that Hillary had picked up nearly 400 superdelegates a year before the primaries even began. While I concede that it puts every other candidate at an immediate disadvantage, it is not an necessarily an unfair disadvantage. Using the logic I laid out, the reason Secretary Clinton picked up huge numbers of immediate support is because she interacts well with other politicians and they trust her to hold true to her track record. Superdelegates, and the timing of their support, reflect the strength that one Democratic politician trusts another one- an important skill for any nominee.


Second, superdelegates can account for late race developments and momentum. Imagine an alternative reality where the 2016 primary race was much closer than it is now, and after all votes are tallied, Hillary Clinton tops Bernie Sanders by a handful of delegates despite Bernie’s late surge. But then, Secretary Clinton is shockingly indicted over her email server. Superdelegates realize how big of a liability this would be in a general and the majority of them flip their votes to Senator Sanders. The nominating process is so long and drawn out that there is always room for scandal after the public has voted. But the situation doesn’t even need to be so dramatic in order for superdelegates to make a positive impact. Look at 1980 where struggling incumbent Jimmy Carter managed to fend off a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy in large part because the Iranian Hostage Crisis boosted Carter’s favorables. Carter later lost the electoral college to Ronald Reagan 489-40. Kennedy would of most likely of been a stronger candidate and the superdelegates could of played a valuable role counterbalancing the public’s support for Carter if they had made the right choice.



Closed Primaries

29 states currently have what are known as open or semi open nominating systems which essentially means that independents (and sometimes Republicans) can participate and vote in Democratic primaries. The remaining 21 states have closed primaries or caucuses where only registered Democrats can vote. Advocates for turning that 21 into 0 have a clear and convincing argument- there are many independent voters who vote reliably Democratic in general elections so they should be able to choose their candidate. This number isn’t small either, a January 2016 report from Gallup shows that 42% of the public self identifies as independent of either party. Roughly 38% of these independents say they “lean Democratic”, they behave Democratic too with 90% of Democratic leaning independents backing Obama in the 2012 general election, compared to 92% of “true” Democrats. Granted, party identification and registration are different animals, but these numbers still show the prevalence of the independent Democrat.


But then again, let’s go back to the purpose of the nominating process, to pick the strongest candidate AND the leader of the party. If someone isn’t part of the Democratic Party, why should they have any say over who leads it? It isn’t disfranchisement, these independents are free, even encouraged, to join the Democratic Party but they made a choice not to. The best compromise is to allow for same day voter registration where independents can switch into parties on election day, ensuring everyone who wants to vote is able to. States like New York have abysmally inconvenient systems, where you must file papers to switch parties on October 9th, a full six months before voting occurs. Problems like these are kinks in the system that can be fixed. It is unfortunate for people who don’t fit into either party that we live in a two party system. But if there was same day registration for voting, people could switch back to  independent after election day making them independents 364 days of the year.


While Sanders supporters have continually protested superdelegates on the grounds they are undemocratic, they are remarkably silent when it comes to caucuses. But maybe they have a point. Some states have primaries which are typical election style voting, but twelve states and three territories have what are called caucuses. Instead of hitting a button on a voting machine, caucuses bring together neighbors to some location where they debate and attempt to sway their colleagues. But, more discussion requires more time. This leads to much lower voter turnout, in fact, the highest turnout caucus (Utah) had a lower turnout than the lowest turnout primary (Louisiana). Many working people simply can’t afford to get off work for multiple hours to caucus on a weekday.


Caucuses show us something that no other part of the process does: organization. At each caucus location each campaign delegates a certain person to essentially be a spokesperson. They organize caucus goers, line up speakers, and try to gain more support for their candidate. Choosing these spokespeople and planning out strategies ahead of time is something that takes great organizational skill and wit: a skill that is instrumental as President and even more so in the general election.


If a candidate and their campaign doesn’t handle the organizational test of caucuses well, it could foreshadow problems later down the road. For example, this year the Republicans had a caucus in my home state of Kentucky. While it was less caucus-y than other states, there were tables set up for spokespeople of campaigns to make their pitch to voters as they walked in. While I am too young to vote, I went to my local caucus site to see how to system worked. Low and behold, Donald Trump did not have a spokesperson at his assigned table. My anecdote is reflected across the country, Trump tends to underperform in caucuses compared to primaries. This acts as a warning sign to the party and reflects his weakness in regards to organization. The warning turns out to be an act of foreshadowing, just look at this MSNBC article from yesterday bluntly titled “Donald Trump does not have a campaign”. Caucuses are certainly not the most democratic part of the system but they still play a valuable role in revealing candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.





Precinct Chairwomen Explaining Caucus Rules, Le Mars Iowa, 2008

Photo: Dave Weaver, AP

Order of States

First off, I want to dispel the proposal of having all states vote on the same day. This would ensure that the candidate with the most up front name recognition and money would win ten times out of ten. No grassroots movement would have the chance to form since a small budget candidate couldn’t realistically campaign across all 50 states. Plus this system is not even a political sprint, it’s like a mild jog, it does nothing to test a candidate’s overall strength.


In the status quo, here is the order of states for voting: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, then Super Tuesday where the majority of the south votes.


It's weird having Iowa vote first, demographically it looks nothing like the rest of the country and Iowa lacks national importance like say, New York. But having Iowa vote first has some definite strengths. Iowa is not a large state geographically so it is possible for all candidates, even those with low funds, to quite literally visit every place in Iowa and speak to everyday people at town halls and at bars around the state. It tests a candidate’s ability to persuade and communicate with “normal” voters and weeds out uncharismatic politicians. But, Iowa is not representative of the rest of the country, it is predominately white and rural. Also, Iowa is interestingly politically divided, while it is usually slightly blue in the general, the Democrats tend to be very liberal and the Republicans very conservative. Ditto with the second voting state, New Hampshire. White, rural, and liberal. After these two states, the race turns south and heads to Nevada which has a sizable latino population then South Carolina, home of many African Americans.


This sets up a relatively fair opening slate of races, progressive candidates like Bernie are set up to do well in the first two contests, giving them much needed momentum, before giving the Democratic base of minorities a chance to vote which appeases more moderate candidates. Sure, the order of states can be switched up some but the overall design of the system is fair enough.



Where do we go from here

As I mentioned earlier, the Democratic nominating process isn’t perfect. There are tweaks that need to happen: easier voter registration, line reducing measures, direct election of delegates instead of the multi step fiasco in the status quo. But despite the need for adjustments, from my perspective the system is okay on the whole. By all means, dissenters should attempt to enact more change at the convention in July, let’s have a conversation. But to assume that the system is 100% undoubtedly unfair and horrible would be to ignore counterarguments like the ones I made above. So let’s have a discussion so the best possible nominee for the Democratic Party can be nominated in the future.