Democracy is Hurting Democrats

The wrong people are choosing the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.

Two columns out today highlight issues that have been bandied about here at OTB lately.

Former Obama speechwriter Kenneth S. Baer argues in The Atlantic that “The Debates Broke the Primary.”

The party establishment’s fear is that by splitting the support of moderates, the other candidates will allow self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders to secure the party’s nomination with only a minority of the votes cast.

But the problem is not too many candidates left in the race but, rather, too few. By creating a deeply flawed set of rules around who could join the presidential debates, the Democratic National Committee created a nominating process that began winnowing the field months before the first ballot was cast.

The escalating set of entry requirements for taking the stage buoyed candidates who already were widely known or who could energize fiercely committed online activists (who are unrepresentative of both the general electorate and the Democratic primary electorate), at the expense of those with experience governing and winning elections.

[…]

The need to clear a polling threshold advantaged those who had run before (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders), political celebrities (Elizabeth Warren), and those with unlimited bank accounts (Tom Steyer). The fundraising requirements theoretically gave the people more of a voice. The problem is that those who are most engaged online are hardly representative of the people or even of people who are Democratic primary voters.

[…]

Democratic small-dollar donors have always held views to the left of the party as a whole, but as with everything else, the move online has supercharged this tendency. Yet thanks to the DNC debate rules, campaigns needed to fundraise online in order to garner support from enough of these donors to qualify for the debates (at least 130,000 to be included in the third one). And taking positions far to the left of mainstream liberal orthodoxy, such as getting rid of private health insurance, embracing reparations for slavery, and decriminalizing unauthorized immigration, can drive viral moments—and a deluge of digital donors.

Thus, as the debates unfolded, the rapidly contracting field took as its victims not gadfly candidates like Andrew Yang or Tom Steyer, but three accomplished governors (Steve Bullock, Jay Inslee, and John Hickenlooper), two popular female U.S. senators (Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris), the most prominent Latino in the race (Julián Castro), and perennially rising Democratic star Senator Cory Booker. The new rules muted the real-life party, and gave an outsize voice to a cadre of virtual activists.

This is why Democrats now find themselves in a bind. A Booker, Harris, or Bullock might have received a second look from Democratic voters looking for an alternative to Sanders, but those candidates have already been forced from the race.

Instead, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have enjoyed increased support, showing that it’s not impossible to succeed without already enjoying a national profile or taking extreme positions. That they’ve done so well, despite the DNC’s new rules, makes their accomplishments even more impressive.

Now, it’s far from clear that Klobuchar, who is sitting in 6th place and 6.4% or Buttigieg, who’s in 5th place and 10.3% in the latest RealClearPolitics average, got that much of a boost. But I’ve been arguing for awhile that a process that quickly eliminates moderate governors while keeping randos like Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard in the race is problematic.

Still, the debates were all but unwatchable as they were. With far too many candidates, the field was split up seemingly randomly across nights and candidates like Marianne Williamson, who never should have been on the stage to begin with, sucked up too much time. So, there had to be some threshold requirements.

Now, I agree—and have argued pretty much since the debates began—that small donors was a bizarre metric for determining viability. It’s an imperfect proxy, to say the least, for voter enthusiasm.

Baer concludes somewhat cryptically:

DNC debate rules had the unintentional consequence of creating a nominating system that took power away from the party and gave it to the Twitterverse. As a result, the problem this election season isn’t too many choices fowhar voters; it’s that they never got a chance to choose at all.

But he never tells us what he means by “the party.” Or what returning power to it might entail.

Marquette political scientist Julia Azari does just that—-although perhaps not in a way Baer would agree with—in her WaPo op-ed “It’s time to give the elites a bigger say in choosing the president.”

One lesson from the 2020 and 2016 election cycles is that a lot of candidates, many of whom are highly qualified and attract substantial followings, will inevitably enter the race. The system as it works now — with a long informal primary, lots of attention to early contests and sequential primary season that unfolds over several months — is great at testing candidates to see whether they have the skills to run for president. What it’s not great at is choosing among the many candidates who clear that bar, or bringing their different ideological factions together, or reconciling competing priorities. A process in which intermediate representatives — elected delegates who understand the priorities of their constituents — can bargain without being bound to specific candidates might actually produce nominees that better reflect what voters want.

A nomination contest is not like a general election. They aren’t being fought to win, but to go on to November. But the kinds of processes that we associate with more open and high-quality democracy may not actually help parties produce nominees that really reflect the party’s overall concerns. Democracy thrives on uncertainty — outcomes that are not known at the beginning of the process. But uncertainty doesn’t help parties strategize for the general election.

She suggests that, rather than allocating delegates through the primary process, we repurpose it.

Preference primaries could allow voters to rank their choices among candidates, as well as to register opinions about their issue priorities — like an exit poll, but more formal and with all the voters. The results would be public but not binding; a way to inform elites about voter preferences.

[…]

The point is to build a way for party elites to understand what their base is thinking, and to allow them to bargain so that these different preferences and priorities can be balanced

I’m skeptical that party leaders have the desire to take on this much power and responsibility for the consequences of bad choices. It’s one thing to lose an election with Hillary Clinton as the standard-bearer if the primary voters made the choice; it’s quite another if the party elites can be blamed directly. (And, to be clear, the party elites would almost certainly have chosen Clinton in 2016 through any process one might have imagined. And, indeed, they might have done it in 2008 rather than gambling on relative neophyte Barack Obama.)

Further, given that we’ve utilized a primary model for delegate selection for nearly half a century, it’s unlikely the party’s base would go along on such a move without a fight.

But something like Azari’s model would almost certainly produce better candidates than the current process. Republicans elites almost certainly wouldn’t have chosen Trump in 2016. They would likely have lost the White House for a third straight term in that case—but done less damage to the party brand.

Party elites would be in their rights to snub Sanders, who won’t even deign to accept their party’s label. Or to tell the likes of Steyer, Yang, Williamson, and Gabbard that they’re not worthy of appearing in the debates. (Of course, they’d likely have made the same choice with Buttigieg, telling him to get more seasoning and come back in a few years.)

But even if the DNC power brokers had narrowed the race at the outset to, say, Biden, Warren, Booker, Harris, Booker, Klobuchar, Bullock, and Hickenlooper that’s still a lot of candidates. The debates would have been better but still crowded.

Radically overhauling the primary process—whether it’s to make them simply beauty contests to impress the real judges or a delegate-allocation process—would seem more helpful. We’ve spilled a lot of pixels here the last few weeks—and, indeed, pretty much every cycle going back to 2004—arguing against the absurdity of having Iowa and New Hampshire go first and have such an outsized role.

I’ve long advocated for a national primary that goes much later in the process and gets followed by a run-off in early summer. But while that solves several of the problems of the current system, it actually exacerbates the need to raise heaps of cash or be independently wealthy.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2020, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Fortunato says:

    You note –

    I’m skeptical that party leaders have the desire to take on this much power and responsibility for the consequences of bad choices.

    Respectfully, I don’t see that as what Azari’s model would do. As you’ve also noted, she specifically suggests (emphasis mine):

    Preference primaries could allow voters to rank their choices among candidates, as well as to register opinions about their issue priorities — like an exit poll, but more formal and with all the voters. The results would be public but not binding; a way to inform elites about voter preferences.

    It appears to me Azari is placing the voter – not the party leaders – front and center. It is the primary voter who is being made publicly accountable for their choices.
    AND, importantly, it makes known to all involved what it is the Democratic electorate most values;

    The results would be public but not binding.

    Which happens to be the perfect means of forcefully refuting the horseshite that Republican candidate(s), apparatchik and right wing entertainment complex will inevitably attempt to foist upon the left – falsely painting Democrats as the party of “open boarders, socialism, gun confiscation, killing babies, coddling terrorists, freeing rapists, handcuffing law enforcement, wasteful spending” etc..
    Those exit polls of Democratic primary voters would make crystal clear to the nation that it is WE who most value affordable healthcare for all, a living wage, equal rights and equal opportunity, more effective education, lower Rx drug prices, environmental stewardship, informed infrastructure investment, arresting climate change, holding capitalism accountable…

    I love Azari’s model.

    (fwiw – kudos for the great, thoughtful post)

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  2. Luke says:

    I feel like I should be shocked, but I’m not.

    If I get this right, I’m suppose to bow down to the elites? Because that would be better?

    Call me a “Far left” voter, but considering I’ve been getting the crap end of the neo-liberal stick my entire life as a middle american. I really am not happy with the moderates and to see the party talking heads float ideas to further remove and make the process more undemocratic. (Which it is, I Want to vote directly for the candidate that is running in the primary. I want no “elites” decide anything for me. Period.)

    Support of private insurance is like… wrong on it’s head. It’s rent seeking system, that’s whole profit model is based on taking money and denying coverage. It’s a scam, it literally should be outlawed. Support of this “industry” is what’s killing Americans everyday. I dunno if you checked, but our life spans are literally shrinking.

    We’re the only country in the world that deny medicine to people based off their income. It’s gross.
    Further more “Trade deals” seem to hurt more Americans then help. You can’t replace factory jobs with service industry work (which pays much less) and a handful of “programming jobs” that companies off shore anyways. It doesn’t work, it’s the hallowing out of America. Not all of us live on the coast and live to serve you drinks at the local hot spot after you get off working at the bank. Neo-liberals always view those “Beneath them” as servants. It’s feudalism in all but name.

    What’s worse, is if I go third party, I have to live in secret from my choice by the same well to do white middle class American wealthy folks who accuse me of “Throwing the election cause I didn’t vote for THEIR neo-liberal candidate”. Coastal Journalists are the worse, they aren’t representative of pretty much the other 90% of America.

    If the Democratic party wants to simply push the left or anyone not a uber-capitalist out of the party. Just do so, decisively. Maybe then the rest of the left and the progressives will finally get their act together and truly run a third party. I tired of seeing the Democratic party pay lip service to the poor and down trodden only to remain outwardly corrupt at levels. Local, state, and federal.

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  3. TheBakerMan says:

    But something like Azari’s model would almost certainly produce better candidates than the current process.

    Why do so many otherwise intelligent and educated people struggle with the fallacy “what I like=better?” Hillary over Obama in 2008? Hillary over Trump in 2016? There is neither any evidence nor any rational argument that Hillary would have been the “better candidate” in either of those situations. And the suggestion that Harris and Booker were somehow “better candidates” than Yang and Gabbard is based on nothing more than James Joyner’s default establishmentarian mindset.

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  4. Guarneri says:

    Absolutely, the elites.

    No grey matter deficient farmers or lathe operators. Only Goldman, or Katy Tur, or HRC, or AOC”………..

    A counsel of wisepersons. College professors!!! Super!!

    What could go wrong?

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  5. Kathy says:

    It may not take a FUBARed system to elect Donald the Moron. But it sure does to give him two terms.

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  6. Kurtz says:

    @Guarneri:

    Let’s let the Wall Street elites and businessmen choose the candidates.

    What could go wrong?

    Oh, right…

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  7. Jay L Gischer says:

    I endorse Azari’s top line wholeheartedly. The current process prioritizes polarization and money. I’m not so thrilled with her specifics.

    I would suggest that we do something proportional, but that’s what superdelegates were, and the Sanders supporters trashed the concept hard, and SDs don’t want that kind of heat.

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  8. Kurtz says:

    Republicans elites almost certainly wouldn’t have chosen Trump in 2016. They would likely have lost the White House for a third straight term in that case—but done less damage to the party brand.

    Wait, what? I think a normal Republican like Kasich probably would have mopped the floor with Clinton. I just checked, the RCP average was Kasich +7.4 in May 2016.

    Though Cruz, who is not a normal anything, didn’t fare as well.

    Looking at a couple other potential matchups at that time, Sanders polled better against all of the potential GOP candidates.

    The party elites, on the Dem side, would have made the same mistake the voters did.

    On the Republican side, given that nobody seems to personally like Cruz, my guess is that Kasich, Jeb, or Rubio would have been the choice, but who knows. They all had similar numbers in head-to-head polling vs. Clinton.

    Regardless, a non-weirdo probably beats Clinton, who would have been the most disliked major party candidate in history. As it happened, she was merely the second most disliked major party candidate in history. And she lost to the first.

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  9. An Interested Party says:

    Speaking of democracy hurting Democrats, apparently Bernie Sanders considered primarying Obama in 2012…wouldn’t that have been interesting…

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  10. Ken_L says:

    Just abandon the whole crazy primary process. Tradition and history be damned. Leave the states to run primaries for their representatives in Congress. Let all registered Democrats elect the presidential nominee in a single, national poll. Let the candidates campaign however they like.

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  11. Scott F. says:

    I’d just like to note that this primary process ended with Obama as the Democratic nominee just 3 cycles ago. And with only 2% of delegates allocated this round, it’s way too early to say this process will nominate any specific candidate in 2020.

    Now, I’m all for switching up the first in nation states to be more representative and give other states a bigger say, but I don’t see the argument for taking matters out of the hands of partisan voters yet.

    If you really want to improve outcomes, reform the way the press covers the campaigns. The sensationalistic coverage that drives ad dollars is what hurts serious candidates and gives free media to clowns like Trump.

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  12. Nickel Front says:

    @Fortunato:

    it is WE who most value affordable healthcare for all, a living wage, equal rights and equal opportunity, more effective education, lower Rx drug prices, environmental stewardship, informed infrastructure investment, arresting climate change, holding capitalism accountable…

    Wow. That’s a lot of horseshite.

    By all of that, i assume you mean to favor eliminating regulations to let the market naturally lower health care costs, you oppose illegal immigration so that wages will rise, you’re against special treatment based on genetics (equality!), for school choice, and nuclear power.

    Otherwise you’re falsely painting republicans as the party of environmental destruction, health care for some, anti immigrant, xenophobia, and racism.

    It’s almost like you refuse to believe that there’s more than one path to a destination.

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  13. Nickel Front says:

    @Luke:

    I tired of seeing the Democratic party pay lip service to the poor and down trodden only to remain outwardly corrupt at levels. Local, state, and federal.

    Join the club.

    They’ve been doing that for over 50 years.

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  14. Jax says:

    @Nickel Front:
    “Otherwise you’re falsely painting republicans as the party of environmental destruction, health care for some, anti immigrant, xenophobia, and racism.”

    Can you show me one iota of evidence that they are not?

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  15. DrDaveT says:

    @Nickel Front:

    By all of that, i assume you mean to favor eliminating regulations to let the market naturally lower health care costs

    Thanks; I haven’t laughed that hard in years. Are you here all week?

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  16. Nickel Front says:

    @Jax: well, US emissions DID drop last year, despite, hell… BECAUSE, we’re not a part of that stupid Paris Accord.

    Dems are the anti american open border party. Show me evidence they aren’t.

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  17. Nickel Front says:

    @DrDaveT: Why?

    Because it’s proven to work?

    ReplyReply

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