How Democrats Are Reshaping Their Party

Over the past year, the Democratic Unity Reform Commission has been trying to tackle the party's contentious nomination process. But who stands to benefit from any changes?
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Senator Bernie Sanders leaves after speaking during a rally against the Republican tax plan on December 13th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Senator Bernie Sanders leaves after speaking during a rally against the Republican tax plan on December 13th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

We're at about the halfway point between the 2016 and 2020 Iowa Caucuses. "About" is the key word here: We don't actually know the date of the 2020 event. In fact, there's a great deal about the 2020 Caucus, and the party nomination system is in general, that's still being debated within the Democratic Party.

Over the past year, a Democratic Unity Reform Commission, created by the Democratic National Committee and consisting of delegates appointed by the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns, has been meeting to discuss the party's election process. These meetings have been, at times, contentious, with Sanders and Clinton loyalists arguing about what exactly went wrong in 2016 and in which direction the party should be moving.

Last month, the commission produced its reform recommendations, now under consideration by the DNC. Assuming these are adopted, the party's nomination process will look substantially different from how it's looked the past several decades. Among the proposed reforms:

A Massive Reduction in Superdelegate Power

Superdelegates are people who become national convention delegates not through primaries or caucuses but rather by virtue of their current role within the party. They are generally Democratic governors, members of Congress, and elected DNC members. Unlike those delegates picked through state primaries and caucuses, their votes are not automatically pledged; they can vote for whomever they want. The role of superdelegate was created in 1984 as a way for the party's leaders to re-assert some control over the nomination process at a time when rank-and-file party voters were seen as too powerful.

Under the new reforms, elected DNC members would still get to be convention delegates, but their vote would be pledged to whichever candidate won their state's primary or caucus. This would have the effect of reducing the number of unpledged votes by roughly 60 percent. (Superdelegates made up about 16 percent of delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.)

A Push for Open Primaries

The commission is advocating for same-day party registration for primary elections:

It shall be the position of the Democratic Party ... that an otherwise eligible voter should be able to participate in a Democratic presidential primary if she or he presents officials at the polling location with written notice that she or he wishes to be enrolled in the Democratic Party.

This would effectively make many primaries functionally open ones, with Independents or Republicans able to participate in the nomination of Democratic candidates. This means that longstanding Democratic Party members would have less control over their own party's choices for nominees.

A Push for Open and Absentee Caucus Participation

For those state parties still conducting nominating caucuses (their number has dwindled a bit since 2016), the commission has advocated substantial shifts in the way caucuses are conducted. For one thing, those caucuses would have to allow for same-day shifts in party registration, meaning Independents and Republicans may participate. For another, they would have to allow for absentee caucusing; up until now, caucus participation has generally only been available for those who are actually in the room. Caucusing, after all, involves more than simply voting—it is designed to be a deliberative process, and it often is when there are more than two candidates involved. Inviting the votes of people outside the room would change that conversation substantially.

The reforms also call for the reporting of raw vote totals, so that candidates who are eliminated from contention for failing to reach a viability threshold still can get some credit for their efforts in media coverage. The next Iowa Caucus could be a very different one from what we've seen in the past.

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Now, who benefits from these changes? From what I've been able to gather, these proposals are a compromise position for Commission members—Sanders people wanted a good deal more to change, while the Clinton folks were fairly content with the way things had previously been run. But these changes undoubtedly tilt party nomination procedures away from insider-favored candidates like Clinton and more toward outsider-favored candidates like Sanders. That is, they erode some of the advantages that Clinton had going into 2016 (the backing of superdelegates, big advantages among registered party voters, etc.) and make it easier for someone without a lot of support within the formal party to win a lot of delegates.

We shouldn't overstate this impact, of course. The biggest advantage Clinton had—the enthusiastic backing of the vast majority of party leaders, donors, organizers, etc., long before any voting occurred, scaring off many strong Democratic opponents—would not have been affected by these reforms. An insider-favored candidate could still draw on such advantages in future races.

Nonetheless, the Democratic Party is conceding that its "establishment" has had too much power in recent elections. The next Democratic presidential nominee will not necessarily be Bernie Sanders, but whoever it is will have had to navigate a system that Sanders and his supporters, to a large extent, designed. And it will probably be someone whose campaign bears a stronger resemblance to Sanders' than to Clinton's.

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