It’s a myth that the Chinese use the same word for crisis and opportunity, but it’s nonetheless sound advice to never let a crisis go to waste…and Democrats are surely experiencing a major crisis right now in their presidential nominating process. It is imperative that they take advantage of it to make some fundamental changes.
This is not about the relatively small-fry problem of Iowa. Yes, the small, overwhelmingly white state’s role in the process is a distortion. But that is a blue herring, one that obscures a much more fundamental problem: Democrats have an entire nominating process designed mostly to make state parties happy and placate the loudest complainers from past election cycles, rather than a process designed to instill confidence in their base and ultimately win. And in the age of Trump, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
That’s why more strategic-minded Democrats need to seize the momentum of the recent Iowa meltdown and, before we even get to the end of the 2020 process, do a fundamental re-think of how the party chooses nominees. This can’t be just tweaks to address one or two small and unrepresentative states having an outsized early role in the primaries. They need blow up the whole dumb process.
Why is the current one so ridiculous? It’s a cliché that generals are always fighting the last war for good reason—leaders tend to focus their energies on duct-taping over the problems they had last time rather than forming a strategy for winning in their current reality. And that’s basically how Democrats ended up with their nominating system.
In 1968 the “problem” was a perception of too much power for party insiders after Vice President Hubert Humphrey was selected as the nominee without winning a single primary. So in 1972, the party crafted the modern primary process via the McGovern-Fraser Commission. In 1980, the widely-perceived problem was that the pendulum had swing back too far the other way by not allowing party leaders enough say in the nomination, so in 1984 the Hunt Commission crafted the system of superdelegates, giving party leaders a thumb on the scales. In 2008, the problem was certain states leap-frogging the DNC’s calendar (which had been assembled as a compromise that would placate Iowa and New Hampshire but also bring some demographic balance to the earliest contests), so they were docked delegates from the national convention to try to lock in the party’s control over the calendar. In 2016, the problem was a perception that the pendulum had swung back in the counter-revolutionary direction with party insiders pulling for Clinton, so superdelegates were demoted to having no vote on the first convention ballot this year.
If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the Democratic nominating process is a grotesque, wheezing herbivore designed by generations of committees to litigate decades-old disputes and forge compromises among long-gone party power brokers. And there is nothing in that short history about designing a system focused solely on winning.
So would a small reform around the issue that everyone is obsessing over this week – the states that go first – solve the problem? Not at all. Consider this: for all of the reporting on the problems of Iowa and New Hampshire – their relative size, whiteness, and lack of large urban centers – is South Carolina better? Sure, it has a higher African American population, and that’s an important factor. But the simple fact is that South Carolina is extremely unlikely to vote for the Democratic nominee in November no matter who it is. In 2012, Barack Obama won 44 percent of the vote against Mitt Romney in The Palmetto State; Hillary Clinton picked up just 40 percent in 2016.
To push beyond Democrats’ regular comfort zone, consider this: Our electoral college-based system for choosing presidents renders the opinions of New Yorkers, Oklahomans, Californians, and Arkansans largely meaningless–they fundamentally don’t matter in determining the winner. So why should Democrats in those take-‘em-for-granted states carry so much weight in the nominating process? Shouldn’t the judgement of Democrats in the swing states carry much more sway?
By the way, true to form, the way the Democratic Party allocates delegates to states – i.e., the amount of “voice” they get in deciding who becomes the nominee – does the exact opposite. The system gives more weight to places with a bigger share of Democratic voters. For example, Massachusetts gets significantly more delegates this year, and therefore more power in choosing the nominee, than similarly-sized Arizona, even though Massachusetts is one of the bluest states (going 60-33 for Clinton in 2016) while Arizona is a true swing state (48-45 for Trump).
This is nuts. It’s the equivalent of asking American generals stationed in England to determine battlefield strategy in Afghanistan.
The counter-argument might be that the process is meant to unify the party, draw on national Democratic resources, and produce consensus, and the current system does that. Except it doesn’t. Not at all. Did Democrats get consensus in 2016, when some angry Bernie Sanders’ supporters threatened to throw the election to Trump?
Are they getting unity now? A survey released this week found that, “about a quarter each of Biden (24 percent), Warren (25 percent), and Buttigieg (28 percent) supporters said that they were not confident that the 2020 Democratic primary was being conducted fairly.”
So, if the current system is an ersatz hand-me-down from decades ago, how should Democrats go about winning in this century?
Start by setting aside the debate over whether the Democrats are better served focusing on winning over swing voters or turning out their base, and stipulate that both objectives can be critical ingredients to winning – or at least that we can’t definitely prove one to the exclusion of the other. But understand that you need to accomplish both not in California, but rather in the states where both parties have at least a chance. We can define those states in various ways, but a starting point might be the 20 or so where each party got at least 40 percent of the vote in the last election.
Also understand that there are complementary objectives in the winning formula: the ability to run an effective campaign on TV, garner earned media, and raise money from across the country. In short, Democrats outside the swing states still have a role to play because a winning candidate needs to leverage national resources and media to have an impact in those hotly contested states. The nomination process should measure a candidate’s ability to do those things.
So here’s a model for a new, winning-focused approach:
First, allow the 30 non-competitive states to have a direct role in selecting the nominee, but combine them into a single national primary toward the back-end of the calendar, and give relatively lower weight to their influence by, for example, giving them 25 percent of the delegates. This would factor in the ability of a candidate to raise money and support from the broader pool of national Democrats but empower those who need to be engaged in swing states to win.
Second, for the 20 states that might matter in the general election, implement a set of primaries where every 3 weeks there are 4 primaries on the same day, spread across different regions. Give the results of those primaries 50 percent weight in choosing the nominee. This would give Democrats in the actual election battleground the greatest sway in telling the party: “here are the candidates who can win here in November.” Yes, this could mean that a state could enjoy swing state status in one election and be relegated to “national status” in the next. That’s good: if a state wants a bigger voice in the process, its state Democratic party should mobilize to get itself in the game.
Third, bring back the superdelegates for the remaining 25 percent of the weight of choosing the nominee. However, expand the pool of superdelegates to include more mayors, state legislators, and other local elected officials in swing states. This has nothing to do with giving power to party insiders in smoke-filled rooms; rather, it gives the people who have actually been successful candidates in the places that matter an expanded voice in vetting candidates.
Fourth, scrap the insipid debate system which everyone hates and does nothing to help Democrats win. There is no shortage of experienced television producers (in reality TV especially) in the Democratic Hollywood set. If the party locked them in a room and said “you have $100 million to produce a three month run of a reality TV show that gets people excited and makes our candidates look awesome” do you think they might come up with something better than more CNN town halls? After all, the highest-rated Democratic primary debate ever got 18 million viewers, which is about one-half to one-third of what top-rated reality show episodes get.
How about a show like The Voice meets The Apprentice, where someone like Barack Obama hosts, and each week, he gives a new challenge to the campaigns? One week, Obama might give them a hypothetical foreign policy crisis, and cameras would take you inside a mock situation room with each candidate and their team debating what to do. The next, cameras could follow candidates meeting a single family facing a health crisis and explain how they could solve it. To some, this may seem like an example of dumbing down our political discourse, but in reality it would just mean embracing a more modern form of popular communication – something that Republicans are not skittish about.
Finally, it is clear that election and voting reform must be a high priority for Democrats, but they can’t sit back and wait for it to happen. They need to take their fate into their own hands to the maximum extent possible, at least for their own nominating contests: every election SNAFU turns off intermittent and new voters, inflames internal party tensions, and ultimately helps their adversaries. The national party may not be able to unilaterally replace the creaky election infrastructure overseen by poorly-trained volunteers that abounds in so many states, but it can provide funds, training, legal resources, and a mandate to focus on bolstering pre-election planning and troubleshooting, election monitoring, and voter legal protection.
There are other options here–other right answers. But the bottom line is, the Democratic Party must move past the point of worrying about hurt feelings, bruised egos, or the dead hand of political traditions. The country is on the line. Anything less than a new system dedicated solely to winning would be fiddling while America’s pluralistic democracy burns.