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Why we nominate candidates this way




 

 

Who in the world, one of my friends asked, could ever have come up with such a ridiculous way to nominate a president?

I looked to my left. I looked to my right. I looked in the mirror.

Mea culpa. I used to be a “rules junkie” along with such wellknown fellow addicts as Tom Donilon, Harold Ickes, Elaine Kamarck and Tad Devine. I was on commissions and drafting committees and even the Democratic National Committee, talking windows and thresholds. I coined the phrase “superdelegate,” in my efforts to defeat the idea.

The truth, though, is that no one person or commission came up with this system. It evolved, with help from the Supreme Court, which ruled that the national parties, not state governments, have control over the process of selecting delegates. That case involved Wisconsin’s “open” primary, which violated the Democratic Party’s rules. Wisconsin had its primary anyway. The Supreme Court then ruled that Wisconsin was bound by the party rules. The net effect: nothing. What were we going to do, refuse to seat the Wisconsin delegates? That would really help in the general.

I remember when some folks decided it was high time to force Iowa and New Hampshire to hold their contests within the “window” that applies to everyone else. At that DNC meeting, we were visited by the governors of both states who managed to secure from all the candidates commitments that they would run and campaign in the two “first in the nation” states whether or not the national party chose to recognize the contests. So much for that.

Super Tuesday was supposed to ensure that moderate Southern Democrats had a say in a process they thought was controlled by the caucus-crazed party activists. Problem is that most Southern Democrats aren’t conservative or even moderate (even if the swing voters in the general may be); they’re African-American, and the big winner of the first Super Tuesday was Rev. Jesse Jackson. The rule of unintended consequences is a bible entry for rules junkies.

The rationale for the process, to the extent there is one, is the mirror of the criticism. By beginning the process with small states that turn as much (or more, in the old days) on retail campaigning as television ads and news clips, the candidates get checked out up close and personal by real voters — before they enter the bubble from which the successful never emerge. Yes, Iowa and New Hampshire are pretty much all white; meanwhile, Democratic victories depend on a coalition that includes Hispanics, African- Americans and organized labor more than family farmers, but that’s pretty much how Nevada and South Carolina slip in.

The skills tested in retail campaigning in these states pretty much have nothing to do with ultimately winning the presidency. What’s worse, the voter pool bears little or no relationship to those who you have to win over in November. Activists, ideologues and diehards determine outcomes in primaries, whereas moderate swing voters are likely to be none of the above. And the states, oy. For Democrats, Nevada makes sense, because it is a swing state in the general, with a diverse demographic. But South Carolina? Every time someone talks about Democratic “firewalls” in South Carolina I want to laugh. What are the chances of a Democrat carrying South Carolina in November? The answer is that if a Democrat is carrying South Carolina, we’re all going to be done with election returns at 8:01.

When I was younger, I was determined to ensure that insurgent candidates had a chance to get their messages out and see if they could light a fire rather than be squashed at the outset in regional primaries that would inevitably be dominated by well-funded establishment candidates. After a few losing campaigns, I came to believe that maybe being able to win in November should have more to do with this process than it does. We are, for better and worse, a divided country. A landslide is proof that one party picked the wrong candidate. The danger this year is that both could.


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