Did Democrats Just Set Themselves Up for a Fiasco?

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The 1924 Democratic National Convention went to 103 ballots, a record that stands as a challenge to the party's rules committee.

I have a strange idea about a party’s rules for nominating a presidential candidate. The main purpose, it seems to me, should be to choose a candidate who can win and then govern well. But I admit that in the Democratic Party my view has lost out to the insistent demand that the nomination procedures put one criterion above all others: reflecting the wishes of primary voters and caucus participants, even though those groups represent a small fraction of the voters the candidate and the party will need in November.

The Democratic National Committee, you may have read, voted in late August to “strip” power from superdelegates. “Voters—and Nobody Else—Will Pick the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee” ran the misleading headline on an article by Larry Cohen, the Bernie Sanders-picked vice chair of the party’s Unity Reform Commission. The superdelegates, Cohen explained, will be unable to vote on the first ballot at the national convention, and “not since 1952 has the balloting for president gone past the first ballot.” 

Before the 2000 election, you could also have said that there was very little chance the Electoral College would affect the outcome. After all, it had not determined the choice of a president in more than a century. But as the 2000 and 2016 elections should have reminded us, historically infrequent events sometimes do happen—and happen repeatedly—with enormous consequences.

This year, it is entirely possible no candidate for the Democratic nomination will emerge from the primaries and caucuses with a first-ballot majority of delegates. Unlike the GOP, the Democratic Party has no winner-take-all primaries; the delegates are proportionally allocated. And the field of candidates appears to be exceptionally large. There could easily be 17 candidates, as the Republicans had in early 2016—except without the winner-take-all primaries to reduce that number.

So here’s the problem. The DNC has just delegitimized the superdelegates, while setting up a procedure that may well make their votes decisive on a second or subsequent ballot—in which case the party’s nominee could start out the fall campaign seriously wounded.

A Democratic candidate who came into the convention with a plurality of delegates and was put over the top by superdelegates on the first ballot would not face a legitimacy problem. In fact, since the creation of superdelegates in the 1980s, they have always reinforced the choice of primary and caucus voters. But the new procedure doesn’t allow superdelegates to perform that function on the first ballot. It both undermines and highlights what may be their deciding role. It may also accentuate party divisions, create more opportunity for backroom deals, and prevent the ultimate winner of the nomination from planning the convention to maximize its impact on voters.

If the superdelegates are to have any role—and I believe they should—the DNC should have been concerned to reaffirm their legitimacy. Many of the superdelegates are members of Congress, governors, and other elected officials. Depriving them of a role at the convention on the ground that they are “elites” not chosen by the voters makes no sense. These are the Democrats who have won general elections; if anything, they have enjoyed the support of more voters than the delegates chosen in primaries, which typically have much lower turnout.

There’s also a good rationale for the role of state and local party leaders in national conventions. Political parties exist mainly to choose candidates to run for office and campaign for them. Giving their leaders only a grudging, back-up role in the nominating process undermines the incentives for people to do the party’s work at the state and local level. 

Moreover, there is a deeper reason in democracies for creating mechanisms that, in effect, stagger the electorate’s impact. The voters in any one election may reflect the passions of that moment. The structure of government therefore takes the people’s input in stages. The superdelegates have been a way of doing that in the presidential nominating process. 

The DNC’s new rules look like a case of generals fighting the last war and fighting it ineptly. Sanders’s supporters were outraged by Hillary Clinton’s huge edge among superdelegates, although in fact she would have won the nomination on the first ballot if there had been no superdelegates. But who is the “insider” candidate in 2020 who will have the superdelegates locked up in advance of the primaries? There is no such person.

The much more likely pattern is a field is so fractured that even the different wings of the party have multiple candidates. The progressive wing may have three—Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sanders, and Sherrod Brown—as well as others in search of support from the same voters. 

So how will the field get winnowed down? Here’s another thing that’s wrong with the idea that “voters—and nobody else—will pick the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.” A good deal of that winnowing will come through the money primary. That’s the contest among candidates, already begun, to win financial backing from what Heather Gerken and Joseph Fishkin call the “shadow party,” consisting of a party’s donors and key affiliated organizations and interest groups. For a long time, power has been moving from party organizations to shadow parties, and the DNC’s new rules are another step in that direction.

The 2020 nominating process may work out fine. Perhaps one candidate will dominate the primaries and come into the convention with a majority of delegates. But if not in 2020 then in some future campaign, the new DNC rules are likely to create a legitimacy crisis for a party nominee. In the wake of that crisis, the party will probably change its nominating procedures again, as it has many times before. I would have preferred to see Democrats anticipate that risk, but they are stuck with an incoherent compromise, and now we’ll just have to see how it plays out in practice.

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