March 22, 2008

On the Democrats' Nomination Process

There's been a lot of tooth-gnashing over the Democratic nominating process. There are complaints that there are too many caucuses, the caucuses are unrepresentative because of low turnout, delegate allocation rules are arcane, the process lasts too long, and on and on. But you have to realize that the nomination process is not about just one objective. If the objective were to pick the most popular candidate among Democrats at a single moment in time, then it would be easy. If the objective were to pick the candidate the party elders thought had the best chance of winning, it would also be easy. The trouble is that those are both objectives, and they are in conflict. The nomination process is replete with conflicting objectives like this. So if you want to talk about what reform should look like next time (and believe me, there will be changes made), you need to keep in mind that the nomination process is not just a method for picking a presidential nominee from a pool of candidates.

You need a process that, among other things:

1) Picks a candidate who reasonably represents the party rank and file

2) Provides an opportunity for low name recognition/low initial money candidates to compete

3) Picks a candidate who has a reasonable chance of winning the general election

4) Provides enough time to assess the relative strengths of candidates, to engage in on-the-job national campaign training and for dirty laundry to be aired.

5) Picks a candidate the party can embrace as a whole, including party leaders and key voting blocs

6) Has reasonably balanced regional appeal

7) Picks a clear winner

8) Grows and strengthen the party

9) Provides an unambiguous nominee

These objectives conflict. 1 and 6 are met by a national primary decided by popular vote, but directly conflicts with 2, 4 and 8, for example. If you think about other systemic change, I think you will see that no method satisfies all these objectives. That’s why the process is constantly being modified, because one or the other objective is not met in most competitive nominating cycles. This year, “picking a clear winner,” which is almost certainly the first and most important objective, is at risk, which is both divisive and upsetting. However, over-reacting to that potential failure is a risk. The last time the party over-reacted, in 1968, it gave Gary Hart’s McGovern campaign an inside track, picking a candidate who was probably not the best choice. In particular, railing about the undemocratic nature of the current process misses the point. It is not just about picking the most popular candidate among the rank and file at a particular moment in time.

For what it's worth, if I were made Democratic Flying Spaghetti Monster for the day I'd drop IA, keep NH, add a primary in a low population state west of the Mississippi shortly after NH. Let those primaries be open. Then I’d divide the rest of the country into quarters by state, randomly, and have closed primaries on the same day, 3-4 weeks apart, winner take all in each state. Delegate allocation identical to the electoral college. Non-state voters, like PR and DC, are assigned delegates proportional to population, and vote in the last superprimary. In the event of no clear winner, a closed national run-off of the top two in delegate count, straight popular vote.

Such a reform would weaken the state parties considerably, which would have to be addressed in other ways. The caucuses create interest, and provide a public and meaningful role for state conventions, especially in low population states. The national convention becomes officially meaningless in the presidential selection process defined here. Any kind of reform will have negative side effects, as thisone does, which reformers need to acknowledge, and deal with, if they are to be taken seriously.


Margalis said...

This has nothing to do with your post, just looking for info. On the Swampland comments you mentioned that McCain paid for rooms at the BBQ but was then charging back the organizations that attended.

How do you know that? It directly contradicts an account I got from an attendee.

Jay Ackroyd (@jayackroyd) said...

Cox said publicly that she'd put the hotel on her personal credit card, and, not being on a story, was going to charge it off to her book project.

I confirmed with an attendee that the news orgs picked up the tab--that was charged back like any other campaign event. It was the official plane. It was an official stop on the campaign, and so would have been charged back.

This is where Cox's story seems dicey. The charter plane costs can not be inconsiderable. I'm gonna see what I can find out about that.

Margalis said...

Interesting. I spoke to someone who attended who swore that the McCain people merely suggested the hotel and that was it.

It would certainly be damning if the McCain people did pay for some of the trip but it's damning enough regardless. I just find it annoying that it's so hard to get a straight answer to such a simple question. At this point with receipts I'm not sure I believe anything.

Peter said...

I just think it's hilarious this this nominating process includes 21 year old superdelegate whose vote means means more than hundreds of "ordinary" folk combined.