Democrat Presidential Nominating Process Review

Democrats-logo“National Democrats are considering changing the presidential nominating process, by establishing a new primary calendar and deemphasizing the influence lawmakers and political insiders have on choosing the party nominee,” CNN reports.

The battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination was marred by controversy as the Democratic National Committee argued with some state parties over when they could hold their primaries and caucuses and candidates were forced to take sides in this important internal party dispute.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, said that the 2008 nomination contest “yielded a great candidate,” but readily acknowledged the problems that arose. “We need to improve a little bit in spite of the fact that we got a great candidate out of the process,” Clyburn said Saturday at a meeting of a DNC working group tasked with drafting a new plan. “It was not very comfortable at various points along the way.”

Democrats see an opening to change the system now, because this is “a rare cycle of no apparent Democratic presidential nomination challenge” in 2012 as President Obama is expected to seek a second term, according to the “Draft Report of the Democratic Change Commission,” discussed at the meeting.

The timing is fortunate, in that rules changes would not be seen as a way to advantage one particular candidate over others given that the party is unlikely to see a contested race before 2016. But most of the problems seen last cycle are out of the control of the DNC.

A commission suggestion would be to allow the first four states that held nominating contests in the January 2008 maintain their early, privileged calendar positions. But these states – Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina – would be directed to delay holding their caucuses and primaries before February 1. All other states would be forbidden from holding their nominating contests until at least the first Tuesday in March.

This is a non-starter. No system will stop the rush of states to jump the deadline when four are given such a privileged position.

Another recommendation in the report suggested grouping states by “region or sub-region.” “This would not be a mandatory obligation upon the state parties,” the commission stated. “The commission recommends that these clusters be staggered throughout the window to allow for a deliberative process that benefits all voters and caucus-goers through the country.”

This is the right direction. While my preference would be a national primary followed by a national runoff, there are huge logistical obstacles to that. A series of regional primaries in which the groupings stay the same but the order rotates from cycle-to-cycle would be an excellent alternative.

States parties that abided by the DNC’s calendar would be rewarded by getting special perks at the national nominating convention.

The perks would have to be substantial. In most years, the contest is effectively over quite early, rendering most state primaries meaningless. There’s a huge incentive to jump the line and matter.

The commission also discussed how to reduce the influence of unpledged delegates — lawmakers and party insiders also know as superdelegates — who played a big role in the 2008 nomination contest.

“Unpledged delegates constituted 19% of the total convention and the presidential candidates were compelled to spend a substantial amount of candidate time and other resources to seek the support of these automatic delegates,” the commission stated. “We learned that in a closely contested presidential race, the nomination could be decided by this category of delegates.”

No formal solution dealing with superdelegates was arrived at Saturday and the commission will draft a plan to reduce their numbers in the coming weeks. “The DNC must address the perception that there are too many unpledged delegates and those delegates could potentially overturn the will of the people, as determined by the state contests,” the commission stated.

Either have superdelegates or (preferably) don’t. But of course they could “potentially overturn the will of the people” in a close contest. That’s the whole idea!

The Republican National Committee is also looking at how its party chooses its presidential nominee, and the DNC expressed interest Saturday in working with its political rival on a nomination calendar.

They should do that sooner rather than later. It’s simply ridiculous to have some states staging two primaries, with different dates for each party.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies 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.