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Presidential nomination process update

By Jonathan Bernstein

I know that almost no one wants to think about presidential elections right now, but the truth is that Republicans are already running, and after November they will start doing so even more openly. After all, by then it will be just over a year until the voters get involved, which means that the "invisible" primary in which candidates compete for endorsements and money is well underway. If past GOP contests are any guide, some candidates will be winnowed out by next summer, six months or so before voters (and the media) perform their own ruthless winnowing in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Or, this time around, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Republicans have decided to adopt the same four early states as the Democrats, or at least that's the plan. Exactly when all this will happen is not yet determined, but another step along the way happened with a major Democratic meeting on the nomination process this past weekend. Fortunately, political scientist Josh Putnam was on the scene, and he wrote a long post reporting and explaining what happened at his Frontloading HQ site. See also reporting from political scientist Tom Schaller and Democratic activist and rules expert Frank Leone.

The context here, the big picture, is that since the mid-1980s the parties have adopted a system in which elites tend to select the nominees and use the primaries and caucuses as a way of testing the electoral appeal of the candidates (much the same as the handful of primaries were used before the reforms implemented in 1972) and to ratify the decisions of party leaders. I think that's a good system, as long as party leadership is permeable and party leaders are properly representative of rank-and-file.

Now, I should clarify: When I say "elites" and "party leaders," I'm not talking about (only) the formal party organizations, but about the broader party networks, made up of activists, campaign and governing professionals, party-aligned interest groups and policy specialists, and candidates. A system in which nominations are dominated by those people -- who have the most at stake, have invested the most in the success of the party and (unless things go wrong) have a strong incentive for the party to win -- makes a lot of sense to me, especially when rank-and-file voters are called on to ratify their decisions.

So, getting back to reforms for 2012: For both parties, timing of the primaries and caucuses is a big issue; the Democrats also had to decide what to do about superdelegates.

On timing, there are two problems. First, the party committees have to figure out what to do, and then they have to try to get a schedule that resembles what they want. That's a problem because there are at least 52 relevant and separate groups making decisions, those being the two formal party organizations (the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee) and the 50 state governments. As everyone saw last time around, just because the DNC decides it wants a particular schedule doesn't mean that states such as Michigan and Florida will listen.

Then, in addition to the national party committees and the state government, there are also the state parties, which may have preferences of their own and may be able to influence the state governments. And then there are the candidates, who certainly have preferences for a schedule that they believe suits their campaigns best, and they have been known to influence the schedule. That's if the national parties can decide what they want, which they haven't always found easy to do.

As I said, however, for the time being both national parties seem to have settled on two things: starting with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, one at a time, in a "pre-window" period, and also on pushing the whole thing back so that Iowa would take place in February 2012, not January as it did in 2008. Both parties also seem to want to push back state primaries throughout the process as well, with Democrats ready to offer extra delegates as an inducement (although, as Putnam says, that hasn't actually worked to date). Will the states go along? We have no idea!

On superdelegates, the Democrats have devised a number of possible reforms, but as of now, and if I read the reports correctly, the most likely result is only a slight decline in the number of supers (by eliminating the "add-on" category). Things could still change, however, at the next round of the decision process.

So that's what's happening. I think there are a few ways to look at these reforms. One is from the point of view of designing a system from scratch. Would we want sequential primaries and caucuses? Superdelegates? Strict proportional representation, as the Democrats have, or a state option about allocating delegates, as the Republicans do? But another, and in my opinion more useful perspective, is to remember that candidates and political professionals have already worked out the incentives and strategies that work in the current system, and that any major reforms help in the first instance mainly those candidates who rapidly figure out (or are lucky enough to stumble into) the best way to exploit the new rules. If that's the case, parties should move cautiously on reform, making significant changes reluctantly.

That said, I don't think that eliminating a handful of supers is going to change anything one way or another. I tend to think it's a bad idea; the superdelegates have worked remarkably well over the years. The main purpose behind the supers has always been to allow party elites to participate at the convention, after Democrats realized that the McGovern-Fraser process, which essentially chooses only delegates slated by the candidates and chosen for maximum loyalty to those candidates, made it next-to-impossible for most elected and party officials to attend the national convention as delegates. That part has worked exactly as planned.

As it turns out, the supers also play a role in ratifying the results, first, of the invisible primary (as many supers declare their candidate preferences early, before Iowa), and then of the primaries and caucuses, as supers eventually shift their support to the nominee. Obama supporters in 2008 mistakenly believed that the supers might "rob" their candidate of the nomination, but in fact the supers performed a useful function by shifting their support to the delegate leader and thereby sealing his majority, making it obvious that it was futile for Clinton to fight on.

Supers are also apt to be useful in preventing a deadlocked convention should a factional candidate manage to win a significant number of delegates at the same time that two candidates run a fairly close contest for the nomination. If the pledged delegate counts were something like Candidate A 46 percent, Candidate B 38 percent, Factional Candidate C 15 percent, then the supers would put Candidate A over the top.

People have also speculated that supers would be helpful if the party ever suffers from what people are now calling a John Edwards situation, in which a candidate wraps up the nomination (say in March) but then suffers some scandal before the convention meets -- a scandal significant enough to make election in November unlikely, but not severe enough to force the candidate to step aside. It's unclear what would happen in such a case; the delegates get to vote, and as I said most delegates qualify to be slated by being loyal to the candidate. It certainly seems that in such a circumstance it would help to have on hand, and voting, a large block of delegates who are interested mainly in the fate of the party in November.

On timing, and beyond the goal of stability, which is quite important here, I think that the parties are slowly moving in a reasonable direction. The idea of four small states that allow for retail campaigning makes sense (although I'd probably ideally like to see them spread out over a longer time period). Beginning in February instead of January makes more sense -- beginning in March or even April would be even better, but that's not in the cards, I suppose.

The Democrats remain fascinated by the idea of regional groups of states -- I guess "cluster" is the word they're using this time around -- as they have been since the 1984 cycle. I'm mostly indifferent to that. I do think that breaking up the 2008-scale Super Tuesday and restoring some sense of sequential primaries and caucuses would be a good thing, but I'm not optimistic about the chances of inducing states to move to the end of the process.

Essentially, what we've been moving to is a two-stage process of winnowing (invisible primary followed by the early, retail states), capped off with a national primary between the survivors. I don't like that idea very much, because if more than two candidates survive to the quasi-national primary, the results become too random; I prefer the continued winnowing offered by sequential contests. That said, I'm not optimistic about the chances of the parties persuading the states to go along; in fact, the national party organizations have never preferred a national primary, but appear to be mostly unable to do much about it. The risk, as always, is chaos, and nominees chosen by a chaotic system are being chosen almost randomly, which is no way to select the leader of a party (or, for that matter, a president).

All in all, then, I like what the parties are trying to do, especially on timing, but we're a long way from knowing whether they'll get what they want.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs about American politics, political institutions and democracy at A Plain Blog About Politics, and you can follow him on Twitter here.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 26, 2010; 12:45 PM ET
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"The idea of four small states that allow for retail campaigning makes sense (although I'd probably ideally like to see them spread out over a longer time period)."

I agree about the advantages of spreading the four early states over a longer time period. It would be good, I think, if the voters in Early State N+1 had time to assimilate what they'd learned about the candidates in Early State N.

And it would also be good if the winnowing process weren't so abrupt: in 2008, after having a full field of candidates on both sides for all of 2007, we suddenly went from that full field of candidates to two on the Dem side, and a McCain win on the GOP side, in the month between Iowa and Super Tuesday.

Fortunately, there's an easy solution to that: move the Early Four primaries/caucuses back into the year before the election year - 2011, in this next go-around. How about Iowa in June, NH in September, SC in October, and Nevada in November?

It's not like the campaign for the GOP nomination won't be going on during 2011; it'll be extremely visible on one level, with dozens of candidate 'debates' with far too many candidates, but with the real action happening behind the scenes, with endorsements and donors.

Might as well get the real action out front, and have the campaign go through a stage where the field has been winnowed down to 5-6 viable candidates, then later down to 3 or 4 of them, then down to 2 and finally a clear winner.

We can do this. We just have to spread the Early Four primaries over the year before the election year.

Posted by: rt42 | May 26, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

"We can do this. We just have to spread the Early Four primaries over the year before the election year."

Only problem being that the states schedule their own primaries, not the national parties, which makes these discussions purely academic. That's why the process has become so front-loaded--every state wants to be near the beginning, so that the contest there will be important to the outcome and will attract the campaigns into the state well ahead of time.

I do long for the good old days when the primaries were not so bunched up. For example, 1968, where Bobby Kennedy did not even enter the race until March 16, impressed by Gene McCarthy's strong performance against LBJ in New Hampshire four days earlier.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 8:51 PM | Report abuse

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