The last panel I attended at Netroots Nation was on reforming the presidential nominating process, and as an extra bonus, Missouri’s own Robin Carnahan was one of the panelists. The other panelists were also stellar: Joe Sudbay of AMERICAblog as moderator, Marcy Wheeler AKA emptywheel of Firedoglake, and Annette Taddeo, a progressive congressional candidate in South Florida.
The aim of the panel as stated was to discuss the problems of the presidential nominating system that we have, and to propose some possible solutions. The discussion was actually heavily weighted to the problems in the system and rather light on the solutions. Interestingly, it was up to the politicians to put forth a couple of proposals.
A lot more below the fold.
Robin gave us a quick, lucid overview of the history of the nominating process, beginning with the 19th Century control of the party nominations by members of Congress, and on to the increasing role of primaries in selecting pledged delegates to the convention on behalf of a candidate. Each wave of controversy exposed new flaws in the system that in turn generated new democratizing reforms. In 1912, the first primary came about in North Dakota as a way of circumventing the power of the political machines that controlled and selected members of Congress. Primaries gained prominence over the next half century, but it wasn’t until the McGovern reforms after 1968 that they gained their status as the deciding factor in our nominating process.
Robin stumped the audience (but not me – I just read Nixonland) by asking how many primaries 1968 Democratic presidential nominee won en route to being selected as the nominee. The answer? Zero. And of course, Humphrey’s selection as nominee helped split a Democratic Party that won the presidency in a landslide in 1964 and held a majority in both houses of Congress, and Humphrey went on to narrowly lose the election. The McGovern Commission followed, reforming the nomination process to something close to what we recognize today. So Robin tended toward hope that each wave of crises and anger would engender new efforts of inclusion and reform, rather than cynicism and disaffection with a broken system.
However, as Secretary of State, Robin recognized the difficulty in reforming the system. National elections take place in principle across the country, but in practice they should really be thought of as lots of local elections happening at the same time, with a variety of voting practices that federal and state authorities have little ability to change (without offering lots of money.) The same goes for the patchwork system of primaries and caucuses (and the primacaucuses!), and there’s also the consideration of just how much uniformity we might want in a vast and diverse country.
Annette and Marcy mainly focused on the problems of this past year for their respective states (Florida and Michigan) in the primaries. Annette spoke of Republican meddling in the Democratic nominating process. Not only was the Republican-led Florida government responsible for moving Florida’s primary up into the early window for which they were penalized, they also scheduled the state-level primaries (where Democratic nominees for Congress and state legislature are elected)
for the same week as the Democratic National Convention.
The frustration boils over when rank-and-file Democrats and independents don’t realize the extent to the Republican meddling, and only perceive that Democrats are taking away a vote that they swore to defend in 2000 and after. According to Annette, the anger is real on the ground, and she shares it.
Marcy spoke about the institutional factors in the Michigan debacle – powerful Michigan party leaders who have been committed to diminishing Iowa and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status colliding with national party leaders skittish about a mad scramble to the front of the line, further complicated by presidential candidates who owe their nomination (or presidency) to a victory in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. But as Michigan is necessary to a Democratic path to the White House (even more so than Florida), a compromise was enacted in order to seat Michigan’s delegation and soothe the activists so crucial to a win on the ground in November.
Annette and Robin each had their preferred solution to the endless jockeying for the front of the primary schedule. Robin supports a rotating regional primary, where the nation is divided into four regions, and states in each region hold their primaries on the same day. Iowa and New Hampshire would be separated out and retain their status at the front of the schedule.
Annette believed that regional primaries would give too much power to big-money candidates able to dominate the populous states in the region. She instead favors a tiered system where the smallest states vote first, then in three more stages, successively larger states, allowing grassroots candidates a chance to compete while building up name recognition for the larger contests.
I hear her complaint, but the truth of the matter is, this money advantage is so great that I don’t imagine much difference being made one way or another without public finance reforms. I mean, Barack Obama’s strategy of countering Hillary Clinton’s early edge in big states by organizing in smaller states took a money advantage. In winning Iowa, nobody spent more than Barack Obama. (I don’t mean money is everything – John Edwards edged out Clinton despite spending half the money in the state.)
There’s a possible solution that I haven’t heard yet – leave the process alone! Didn’t this year prove that a well-organized candidate with an army of small donors could beat a party favorite with most of the institutional support? And didn’t this year prove that every state can get the attention and money that comes with a competitive primary? I don’t know if it’s really the answer, and implicitly by virtue of being the status quo, it’s already on the table, and should be discussed openly.