“The Democrats are big on reforms. We don’t suppose they will ever find the perfect, foolproof charter they are looking for.” – A Washington Post editorial in 1980.
Since the 1960s, the two parties, especially the Democratic Party, have been “reforming” the way they pick their presidential nominees. Right now, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is considering yet another set of changes to the Democrats’ process. Beginning after 1968, the parties began switching from “bosses in smoke-filled rooms” nominating candidates to rank-and-file voters doing so largely through direct primaries. While democratic elections are in theory almost better by definition, the actual results of “reform” have not exactly been encouraging: voters have repeatedly complained that the nominating system is too long, too expensive, too little focused on issues with too much “horse race” coverage, too negative, too attentive to special interests and often offers weak choices for the general election.
As Democrats argued about an “open convention” in 1980, the Charleston Evening Post, speaking for many, referred to “a manure pile of a presidential nominating process.” There has to be a better way, one that allows voters to participate with maximum fairness and flexibility. There is, and we can look to, of all things, sports as the model. Just as in baseball, a balanced primary schedule with the ability to make necessary substitutions would be a vast improvement over today’s hodgepodge of primaries, caucuses and unelected superdelegates.
Democrats have led the way on election reforms. At the 1964 convention, after civil rights activists tried to unseat segregated Southern delegations, it was decreed that all future state delegations must be integrated. After the chaotic 1968 convention, where Chicago cops brawled with anti-war demonstrators that helped cost Democrats the election, the party appointed a special commission co-chaired by George McGovern to make sure that would never happen again. The process was reformed to allow ordinary voters to pick the nominees. (Republicans eventually went the primary route to choose most of their delegates, too).
Unfortunately, the nominees picked by the primary system in the 1970s proved to be disappointing: McGovern lost 49 states in 1972. While Jimmy Carter won the election of 1976, he was bounced after just one term in the worst defeat ever for an incumbent Democratic president.
After 1980, yet another reform commission attempted to balance the primaries by adding uncommitted superdelegates composed of members of Congress, governors and top party officials. In 1984, Walter Mondale won only 38 percent of the total primary vote, but was put over the top by the superdelegates. After Mondale lost 49 states, Southern Democrats, fearing the party’s image was too liberal to compete in the Sun Belt, moved most Southern primaries up to just behind New Hampshire in the hopes of nominating a moderate.
This gambit didn’t work either as Jesse Jackson won almost half the primaries on Super Tuesday, thus splitting the Southern vote with Al Gore and allowing Michael Dukakis to win the nomination. The Massachusetts governor then lost in the fall where his liberalism proved fatal.
Since the 1990s, the delegates have been chosen mostly in the primaries with about a sixth superdelegates (governors, members of Congress, etc), but the primaries have been moved up to early winter. In 2004, John Kerry won Iowa on Jan. 19 and then essentially wrapped up the nomination on Feb. 3 in New Hampshire. In 2008, we saw the earliest campaign yet as the Iowa Caucuses were held in the first week of January. (Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton that year by the narrowest of margins in the primaries). And of course, supporters of Bernie Sanders complained loudly about a “rigged” system when superdelegates went heavily for Hillary Clinton and tipped the 2016 nomination to her.
As former CNN political analyst Bill Schneider wrote, Democrats have repeatedly “reformed” their nomination process in response to losing candidates, only to see the reforms have unforeseen consequences that often created even more problems and nominated unelectable candidates. (Full disclosure: Schneider is my former boss.)
And Republicans are sometimes unhappy with their process, too: Watching the chaotic recounts in the 2012 caucuses of Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado, CNN’s John King questioned whether Republicans would take another look at their nominating process. It turned out they made very few changes to their system afterward and Donald Trump dominated their 2016 primaries anyway.
But this was not the first time either party has agonized over its rules. If Clinton had won in 2016, she would have kept the status quo that nominated her. But she lost the Heartland swing states and now the DNC is considering changing the process once again.
As the Post editorial board, Schneider and others have pointed out, the Democrats’ repeated attempts to improve the system have backfired. There are simply no guarantees in politics that any future reforms will work.
Look to baseball
I do not advocate going back to the days when ordinary voters had little say in the process. Nor do I blame the primary system for the Democrats’ hard luck of the last five decades: the divisions over Vietnam and race riots in the 1960s, economic problems in the ’70s, foreign policy in the ’80s, Bill Clinton’s scandals in the ’90s, Sept. 11 and the controversy over Clinton’s emails in 2016 all contributed more to the Democrats’ problems than their nominating rules. However, the system could definitely be improved – and should be, for the good of everyone.
The parties should certainly keep the primaries, but make the schedule more rational and fairer. Fortunately, there is a way to retain the primaries and strengthen the quality of candidates chosen. For the solution, we can look to the national pastime. In Major League Baseball, the regular season schedule doesn’t favor any team. Each generally plays equal amounts of home and away games, the media have little influence, every game counts equally until the playoffs and teams can strengthen themselves during the year (and even during games) by substituting players.
Baseball fans, managers, players and journalists all know that a win late in the season is equal to one early. Everyone knows not to panic when a team gets off to a rough start: stretch drives to win the pennant are common in baseball. However, Iowa and New Hampshire almost completely dominate the early primary schedule. They have warm, civic-minded voters, but are unrepresentative. In the 2010 Census, roughly 90 percent of the residents of these two states were non-Hispanic whites, compared with 64 percent of the nation. If those two states insist on still voting first, let them share their early status with two other more diverse states from the South and West such as South Carolina and Nevada by voting all on the same day or week. After the early states have their say, the schedule should then have a regionally balanced set of roughly 12 primaries each (three from the Northeast, Midwest, South and West) chosen at random roughly three or four weeks apart. That way, no region or individual will be given an undue starting advantage. And primaries should definitely be favored over caucuses because they tend to have a higher participation rate, and more democracy is a better thing.
Flaws in the system
The front-loading of primaries to winter makes it almost impossible for late entries if the announced candidates are floundering. Some pretty good candidates have emerged late (Adlai Stevenson, John Fremont, Wendell Wilkie) – along with some well-regarded presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and James Polk. Moving most of the primaries back to the spring with much later filing deadlines will give a new system some much-needed flexibility.
Another terrible flaw of the current system is that it favors unemployed candidates. Rick Santorum became involuntarily unemployed in 2006 when Pennsylvania voters threw him out of the Senate. Therefore, he was able to spend much time in Iowa, the only Republican candidate to visit every county in the state, and won a narrow upset in the 2012 caucuses that actually wasn’t reported accurately until about 10 days later. (Yet another failure of the system!) Did many Republicans really believe that Santorum was the strongest possible nominee out of 300 million Americans? Obviously not as he lost badly to Trump in 2016.
Since the media aren’t likely to change the way they cover the horse race, we should change the schedule to attract more rational media coverage. I don’t blame the media for hyping the Iowa and New Hampshire results: they are simply reporting results. The answer is to rebalance the schedule to reduce the outsized influence of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Baseball fans know that the Boston Red Sox have an outstanding home record over the last generation, mainly because they have built their team around the unique dimensions of fabled Fenway Park. Would it make sense to let the Red Sox play 80 or 90 percent of their games at home? Absolutely not, yet that is the political effect of letting Iowa and New Hampshire go first. It simply doesn’t make sense for quirky, small states like Iowa and New Hampshire to have such power.
Another principle from baseball that applies here is the substitute option. In baseball, when the pitcher is tired, managers bring in a relief pitcher. Or when a batter is injured or in a slump, a pinch hitter can bat for him. By contrast, the primary system makes it extremely difficult to replace a flawed candidate.
In the conventions of 1972, 1980 and 1984, it was obvious that the Democratic nominees were in deep trouble and went on to landslide defeats. Yet, under the “reformed” system that bound delegates to a particular candidate, the party was expressly forbidden from finding a stronger candidate. Watching the 1980 debacle, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wisecracked: “When Doctor Johnson said that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel, he overlooked reform.” (Democratic voters showed their unhappiness with these choices by staying home).
If a prospective nominee is severely damaged goods – say if the Gary Hart/Donna Rice scandal had broken in the spring of 1988 after he had won Iowa and New Hampshire or the John Edwards pregnant mistress scandal had broken after he had won enough delegates to have gone on a Democratic ticket – why shouldn’t the party be able to make the rational decision to replace them?
Make the delegates “free agents” again with some ability to make substitutions if necessary. Obviously, this should only be done in extreme situations like a scandal (Hart in 1987-88) or a catastrophic dive in popularity (Carter in 1980). But the option should be there. As a 1980 News editorial stated, “common sense argues for allowing delegates at least some flexibility to change their minds in the face of exceptionally compelling new conditions.”
What are delegates?
Regarding the open convention debate in 1980, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: “What are delegates? Automatons, or men and women with minds of their own, free to exercise their judgment in choosing the party standard-bearer? The delegates sent by the states to Philadelphia in 1787 were supposed to improve the Articles of Confederation. You might say they violated their oaths when they went ahead and drew up a new Constitution of the United States. You might also say they acted in accord with their consciences and used their own better judgments.”
Some may object that these proposed changes will have the effect of favoring candidates from big states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio or Pennsylvania. Well, they are only the most important swing states that will likely determine who becomes president. What’s wrong with finding candidates who can successfully compete there?
A more rational nominating system would be more likely to make voters happier (and probably lead to higher turnout), choose better candidates and probably better presidents. Since the Democrats are out of power now, they are more likely to tinker with the system. So, here’s a plea to Tom Perez: Make the system more rational, fairer, shorter and more flexible. It’s likely to pay political dividends in both the short and long term.
Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant from California and the co-author of “California After Arnold.”