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How to Improve the Primary Process? Make It Less Democratic.

It sounds counterintuitive—and would be a hard sell—but making the way the two major political parties nominate candidates less traditionally democratic could also make it more open to compromise and negotiation.
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The 2020 presidential primaries are still pretty far away, and not too many people feel like thinking about them right now. But one thing we can be pretty sure about is that they'll be fought under different rules than existed in 2016.

The Democrats' dilemma is pretty straightforward: In 2016, party insiders heavily pushed a particular candidate over the wishes of a more populist liberal wing of the party. Hillary Clinton ultimately won the nomination but then narrowly lost a general election against a seriously flawed opponent. Those who pushed for Bernie Sanders in the primaries and caucuses insist that their candidate would have beaten Donald Trump and that the party should have listened to them and been more open to his insurgent campaign.

Already, several states have moved to open up their presidential nomination processes, allowing independent voters to participate in Democratic primaries and caucuses. And, in a gesture toward party unity, Clinton and Sanders delegates responsible for the Democratic National Committee's rules have proposed changes for 2020, possibly binding many superdelegates to their state election results. That change will give an advantage to candidates with substantial support from left-leaning voters outside the traditional Democratic bloc, and could make the nomination of someone like Sanders more likely in future contests. With reduced insider influence, increased openness to non-traditional voters, and a lack of an obvious next-in-line for the next presidential nomination contest, the Democratic Party may be more internally democratic in 2020 than ever.

This is most likely a move in the wrong direction.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

To begin with, the idea that Sanders would have won where Clinton lost is highly questionable. For one thing, it would have been very easy to run brutal advertisements against the self-described socialist. For another, Clinton actually over-performed some of the economic-forecast models in 2016—she did better than many expected given the political environment. Sanders was polling better against Trump than Clinton leading up to the Democratic National Convention, but those polls were likely not a very realistic picture of what Sanders' support would have looked like after a bloody general-election contest.

But even if Sanders had beaten Trump, the current primary process still gives too much power to the whims of the people. The Republican Party, in many ways, provided us with a real service last year by showing us what can happen when the party-democracy pendulum swings too far in one direction. The product of that is Trump, a man who not only rejects much of what his party believes in and actively undermines that party's leadership, but who is also proving to be a highly flawed and divisive president and is facing an unusually strong chance of impeachment or resignation.

Arguing for less-direct voter control of nominations—or of anything, really—is a tough sell in American politics. But quite a few people are or will be open to dramatic reforms in the way we nominate presidential candidates this year. So it's time to make the argument.

It might not be popular, but the lesson of 2016 was that parties should be allowed to be parties. They don't have to make decisions in secret, but they should still make decisions, rather than outsourcing those decisions to voters.

Georgetown University political scientist Hans Noel has proposed a series of fairly modest reforms that could change the way our parties nominate presidents by making the process more amenable to negotiation and compromise. His proposals are threefold:

  1. Make the primaries and caucuses proportional rather than winner-take-all. That means that, if a candidate wins 40 percent of Ohio's primary vote, she gets 40 percent of the delegates from that state, not all of them. This makes it less likely that a candidate will clinch the nomination prior to the convention, meaning a candidate's supporters would still need to negotiate with other campaigns to get the nomination.
  2. Shorten the time between the first and last primaries and caucuses so that candidates who aren't necessarily winning in fundraising might still make it to the end. This would mean more viable candidates still in play at the convention, forcing party insiders to negotiate on a nominee and review the candidates' various strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Make contests less about the candidates and more about the delegates. This could include unbinding delegates from the voters' choices.

Personally, I'd be in favor of just getting rid of any formal delegate pledges, functionally making every delegate super. Many Sanders supporters will likely be outraged by this idea, but they would probably also agree that the primary process is in need of an overhaul. Moving ahead requires a complete rethinking of the purpose of primaries.

We've come to think of primaries (and caucuses) as a place for candidates to compete for our votes in a nomination contest. But, really, a primary is simply one of many ways for a party to pick a nominee. The party, rather than the candidate or the voter, should be the key actor. Yes, public sentiment should be a constraint on the party, and the primary provides information about the skills and appeals of various candidates, but it needn't determine precisely how the party must act.

And what's the purpose of a convention? In recent decades, major-party conventions have become little more than infomercials with good celebrity cameos. The important decisions tend to be made long before the convention even meets, making the event just a gathering where officers and activists advertise their party for four days.

Not too long ago, conventions were where parties actually made nominations. State parties selected delegates to go, but quite a few were either uncommitted or were committed to someone they knew wasn't interested in running and couldn't win. Shouting for different candidates wasn't considered a breach of decorum—it was part of how the convention reached a decision.

Abraham Lincoln makes for a useful case study. Few expected Lincoln—a little-known former congressman—to emerge with the Republican nomination in 1860. He was facing better-known candidates. But, according to political scientist Julia Azari, Lincoln had staked out an important centrist position among anti-slavery politicians. He was not associated with the more-radical Republicans, nor was he likely to accommodate the pro-slavery Democrats. Thus, while the favorite of few going into the convention, he proved to be a solid second choice for most groups in the party when their first choices proved problematic.

What's more, Azari says, Lincoln's nomination might not have come about if the Republicans had the more democratic, primary-driven nomination system we use today. A more strident group of party activists, radicalized by the political violence of the late 1850s, might have pushed the nomination of a more hardcore abolitionist. This could have split the party and led to a far different outcome in the 1860 election, possibly prolonging slavery for another generation. In this case, the knowledge that party delegates had—and their ability to forge decisions in smoke-filled rooms—allowed them to create a compromise that helped their party and, ultimately, the nation.

As Noel argues, that's the direction we should be going—letting delegates be delegates, representing the interests of their regions but also having a freer hand to change their minds and build new coalitions. Last year's Republican convention provides another instructive example as to why this autonomy would be useful. In the nearly six months between the earliest primaries and the convention, people learned more information about Trump—including his encouragement of violence at rallies and his opinion that a judge was incapable of fairly presiding over a case because of his heritage. Delegates bound to their states had to vote for him anyway, despite the fact that voters were unaware of Trump's issues when they cast their vote. Those unbound could make a more informed decision, and indeed Colorado's delegates largely cast their votes for Ted Cruz.

Allowing party delegates to do more deliberation could, in some cases, cause intra-party strife, especially if party insiders pick someone that their activist base doesn't like. This is arguably what happened to the Democrats in 1968, when the party nominated Hubert Humphrey over the clear preferences of the anti-war activists whose favored candidates dominated the primaries. It was reactions to that nomination that led to the explosion of primaries and the massive increase in intra-party democracy over the past four decades.

This was a defensible shift at the time, but it seems we've over-corrected. Picking good nominees for organizations as vast and diverse as our national parties requires not just enthusiasm, but deliberation and compromise. Casting a vote in a primary booth, voters really don't have the incentive or ability to forge such coalitions. Convention delegates do. And the more we move to disempower those delegates, the worse our nominees are likely to be.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.