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.