Blogs > Cliopatria > Reforming the Democratic System?

Feb 18, 2008 6:17 am

Reforming the Democratic System?

As Ralph mentioned in yesterday's roundup, Princeton's Sean Wilentz (who has published a number of pieces aggressively promoting Hillary Clinton's candidacy) and Julian Zelizer had an interesting op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post on the shortcomings of the Democrats' primary process.

Some of the Wilentz/Zelizer recommendations are uncontroversial—the parties"grabbing power back from the media," the need for a more"rigorous system of national debates"—though it's not clear how they can be achieved. With debates, for instance, one way to increase rigor would be excluding non-viable candidates (think Kucinich or Dodd or Tancredo in 2008), so people could have more of a chance to evaluate the real contenders. Yet such a move would doubtless be denounced as anti-democratic.

Wilentz and Zelizer didn't mention what strikes me as a major shortcoming of the Democrats' process revealed by this campaign—how the excessively anti-majoritarian delegate allocation process affects a two-person race. As anyone following the campaign has come to learn, in congressional districts assigned an even number of delegates, candidates can be separated by as much as 15 percent and still receive the same number of delegates. Though I'm an Obama supporter, I readily concede that this structure has been successfully exploited by the Obama campaign (part of a general pattern of tactical superiority by the Obama forces). The party's disinclination to give a real reward to winners is highly problematic.

Wilentz and Zelizer also largely avoid a critical problem of the current system—the pressure for frontloading caused by the dominance of Iowa and New Hampshire. They speak favorably of the era before primaries played such a large role in the process, but, realistically, we're unlikely to return to such a system.

The recent pattern of nominating contests being decided in the immediate aftermath of Iowa and New Hampshire produced the understandable, if disastrous, decision of Michigan and Florida to violate party rules and move their primaries to January. It also yielded the creation of a mega-Tuesday primary with Illinois, California, New York, Missouri, and New Jersey all moving their primaries to the earliest date allowed by the parties. In retrospect, of course, some if not all of these states would have exercised more influence in this year's race by voting later.

Zelizer and Wilentz make two recommendations dealing with the system as it currently exists. First, they argue for abolishing caucuses. I agree with them that primaries are far preferable to caucuses, if only because primaries provide for the secret ballot.

The decision of many smaller states to choose delegates by caucuses, however, is inextricably linked with the problem of frontloading. Here's a clip, from late 2007, of Hillary Clinton describing the 2008 process.

Clinton, it's worth remembering, was hardly the only person to believe"it's not a very long run; it'll be over by Feb. 5"; it seems as if just about everyone outside of the Obama campaign did.

Put yourself, then, in the position of a state legislator from Maine, or Wyoming, or Nebraska—or even some of the smaller and expected-to-be-overlooked Super Tuesday states, like Kansas, Idaho, or Alaska. If even the party's overwhelming favorite is saying that the outcome will be decided before your state votes, why should you appropriate funds for a primary? The parties, in short, need to give smaller states a reason (i.e., through a system of rotating regional primaries) to fund primaries.

Absent such a change, caucuses seem likely to remain. The traditional argument against them is that, because of low turnouts, they skew toward the ideological extremes. While that's held true on the GOP side in 2008, the story among Democrats has been much different—all Democratic caucuses have had massive increases in turnout, perhaps minimizing the role of the party's far left.

Wilentz and Zelizer don't make this argument against caucuses; instead, they note that caucuses can disenfranchise the working poor. (The Clinton campaign has made a similar claim, although in its case the apparent goal has been to dismiss the candidate's disastrous performance in caucus states; the willingness of Clinton allies to sue to shut down workplace caucus sites in Nevada suggests that concern with the disenfranchisement of the working poor is a recent discovery of the campaign.) Yet if disenfranchisement rather than ideological skewing is the key problem, it can be solved without eliminating caucuses. Instead, the parties could mandate that all caucus states follow the model of the Maine caucuses, which have absentee balloting. Around 4000 people caucused by absentee ballots in the 2008 Maine Democratic caucus.

The most radical recommendation of Wilentz and Zelizer comes in their call to eliminate open primaries. Presidential preference primaries originated as a Progressive Era reform, in states like Wisconsin, North Dakota, and California. The goal was to weaken the power of party bosses by allowing the people (of any party) to vote. The ideal of primaries, in short, envisioned open primaries. Although some states have prevented members of the other party or independents from participating in their primaries, open primaries are still the norm for Democrats (in around two-thirds of states).

Wilentz and Zelizer note,"Open primaries and caucuses (in which anyone can vote, not just registered party members) let voters from the other party cause all sorts of mischief. A Republican convinced that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is too divisive to win in the fall could vote for her in some Democratic contests in the spring, hoping to saddle the Democrats with a losing nominee. Or, as Sen. Barack Obama's campaign did in Nevada, a candidate can openly appeal for votes from people outside his or her party in order to stop a rival. The winners are outsiders hoping to game the system; the losers are rank-and-file party members whose choices count less."

If, in fact, large numbers of Republicans were voting in Democratic primaries with the express purpose of saddling the party with the less electable (according to current polls) Clinton, this would be a serious problem. Yet there's no evidence of any such occurrence: indeed, in state after state, Obama has outperformed Clinton among independents and the small number of Republicans who have voted in Democratic primaries. Making such a radical structural change by abolishing open primaries should require more than a theoretical problem.

Moreover, as Wilentz and Zelizer correctly note,"Primaries tend to favor highly committed voters from the extremes of both parties, who are much more likely to turn up than moderates. So candidates have strong incentives to pander to their extremist flanks, throwing red meat that they may well regret in November or in the White House." By allowing independents—who are disproportionately moderates—to participate, open primaries help minimize this problem.

The current system—the dominance of Iowa and New Hampshire, plus the absolute reliance on primaries and caucuses—dates only from 1976. It is, as Wilentz and Zelizer entitle their op-ed, a"rotten way to pick a President." Unfortunately, though, one lesson of the period since 1968 is that the seemingly quadrennial process of post-election reforms has only succeeded in making a"rotten" system more so.

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Jeff Vanke - 2/21/2008

Johnson suggests "a system of rotating regional primaries." I'd rather see a system where each week in the primary season has elections in a few geographically scattered states, for a more representative cross-section.

And ideally, but idealistically, I'd prefer a constitutionalized national primary system without party involvement, a la Louisiana statewide elections. We could have ten+ weeks of primaries, e.g., with the first week having the 1st (Delaware), 11th, 21st, 31st, and 41st (Montanta) states in the union voting; second week, 2nd, 12th, etc.

(Ballot eligibility would be an important concern, but secondary to getting such a fundamental reform in the first place.)

These primaries would also allow voters to rank their preferences, in a Millsian, Cambridge-Mass.-style election, with the final calculations necessarily withheld until the primary season were over, maintaining some suspense and importance to the last week of the primaries.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/18/2008

And you believe that those states allow the same voter to vote in both primaries?

Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2008

There are states in which the primaries don't happen simultaneously.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/18/2008

Open primaries do not allow voters to have more than one vote in a primary season. In Georgia's open primary, when I go to the polls in a primary election, I ask for either a Republican or a Democratic ballot. I don't have the option of taking both ballots. There is a real sense in which I declare myself a Republican or a Democrat by my choice of ballot.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2008

I think the open primary is an idea which has come and gone. I don't think there's anything fundamentally dishonest or disenfranchising about limiting voters to one vote in a primary season.

That said, what I'd much rather see is a more national primary process (small states first, in larger groups) with a ranked preference system....

Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2008

Democrats do not have a "natural majority" and must fight for the middle ground of the electorate.

Funny, that's what lots of Democrats have been saying about Republicans for years. Most reasonably reliable poll data seems to support the idea that most Democratic planks are more strongly supported by the "middle ground" than Republican ones, though, which is why the "energize the base" tactic matters so much more to Republicans.

HAVH Mayer - 2/18/2008

Another lesson of the period since 1968, borne out by a series of election reforms and election results, is that the Democrats do not have a "natural majority" and must fight for the middle ground of the electorate. Wilentz doesn't see this (perhaps he's thinking of 1828) and wants to empower the middle of the party.

I think the Iowa caucuses are a terrible way to start off the campaign, but that New Hampshire -- an open primary in a small swing state -- is not bad; obviously what Joe Biden would call a "mainstream" black candidate can run well there despite its pervasive whiteness. The worst problem with NH is that it's basically part of greater Boston, so media is expensive.