Strap in. You’ve endured nearly a year of debates and skirmishes among politicians vying for the presidential nominations of the Republican and Democratic parties. But you ain’t seen nothing yet, as the hit song puts it.
We are heading into a five-month blitz of caucuses and primary elections in which Hillary Clinton will battle Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to be the Democratic nominee in the fall — while Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and more square off on the Republican side. The action kicks off with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 and culminates in July with each party’s national convention, where each party’s delegates will at last anoint one nominee.
How did we end up with a five-month-long process of contests just to choose nominees? No other democratic country is similarly afflicted. And that’s before we begin the five-month general election campaign to decide — finally — who gets the keys to the White House.
America’s bizarre system for choosing each party’s candidates was never intended. It emerged from the pursuit of a noble ideal: democracy. But it has produced an indefensible affront to our values. Many of you may recoil at your choice of candidates in November and conclude that they don’t reflect the beliefs of most Americans.
Here’s how it happened.
In the late 1790s, after George Washington declined to run for a third term, a skirmish broke out between the two political parties forming at the time, and each turned to its members in Congress to nominate candidates for president and vice president. For the next quarter-century, this insider process — named King Caucus — ruled.
Candy for history buffs: King Caucus threatened the “separation of powers” principle of our Constitution, with its plan for independent branches of government to battle and, in the process, check each other. With Congress in control of who would be nominated for president, presidents felt pressure to pander to Congress. Take President James Madison: He may have pushed for the bloody War of 1812 against the Brits to curry favor with King Caucus and secure his renomination. What the Constitution had separated, King Caucus fused.
In a pattern that continues down to our time, reformers decried the control of “insiders” and insisted on more popular control over who was nominated. The fight to democratize the political parties led in 1832 to national party conventions — a first among democratic countries.
Soon, however, the glee over slaying King Caucus and empowering “the people” faded, as a new breed of political insiders took over the national conventions. America ended up, over the coming decades of the mid- to late 19th century, with the famed smoke-filled rooms and dealmaking of “machine politics.”
This cycle of political revulsion followed by the glee of reformers promising resurrected democracy would repeat itself.
About a century ago, reformers from the Upper Midwest launched a campaign that aimed to replace the coarseness and corruption of machine patronage and vote-trading with direct primaries. Finally, we were promised, presidential nominations would be decided by “the people” who would vote in state primaries. They, and not the corrupt insiders, would select the delegates who attended the national conventions and chose each party’s presidential standard-bearer.
We are now getting closer to making sense of today’s spectacle.
Direct primaries did spread in the early 20th century, but the high-fives among reformers soon stopped. As late as the 1960s, only a bit more than a dozen states held primaries; their outcomes did not determine nominations. Political bosses still bossed.
The mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago reignited the backlash against insider control and reformers’ search for the Holy Grail of party democracy.
Now, we get to a particularly bizarre moment. Party reforms in the early 1970s did strip leaders in both parties of the power to decide nominations. Today, delegates to the national conventions are chosen mostly in caucuses and, especially, primaries across the country. (Minnesota is one of about a dozen states that clings to caucuses. Ours will be held March 1.)
High-fives and cheers followed once again. But what has followed is hardly democratic nirvana.
In the last presidential campaign, less than 16 percent of eligible citizens (33 million) chose the nominees between which four times as many voters (126 million) decided in November 2012.
Here’s a kicker: That 16 percent who turned out in the 2012 primaries and caucuses didn’t well represent the country or even their own parties. Democrats active in determining their party’s nominee are more liberal than the country as a whole and more liberal even than most other Democrats. Their Republican counterparts are considerably more conservative than the country and even than Americans who align with the GOP. Those are consistent findings from exit polls and surveys of convention delegates.
Exhibit A: The Iowa caucus, as usual, enjoys the unrivaled potential to launch or sink this year’s candidates. Yet, Iowa caucusgoers are hardly representative of America. They are more white and more rural than America. Some 43 percent of Iowans planning to attend the Democratic caucuses describe themselves as socialist, while majorities of their Republican counterparts are gun enthusiasts and “devoutly religious.”
We are wired to cheer on democracy and decry insiders and, yet, where are we now?
The intoxicating allure of democracy has brought us to the point where the great mass of voters are compelled to select among candidates many will find too partisan and ideological. What started off as a righteous revolution for “the people” has landed the U.S. — and no other democratic country — in a process ruled by small numbers of issue advocates who view the political parties as vehicles for their causes and ideologies.
A self-declared “democratic socialist” not previously in the Democratic Party may take its nomination for president. Donald Trump leads the GOP pack even though he isn’t loyal to the Republican Party and even though his views about women, Mexicans and Muslims offend the party’s values and threaten its prospects to win in the fall, when moderate voters will, as is normal, swing the election.
As we gear up for the onslaught of primaries and caucuses, you may wonder: What should I do? Answer: Show up. It’s the no-shows who give carte blanche to the single-issue activists to rule the roost in the nominating process.
And, when you choose a candidate, consider an old-fashioned idea: Which candidate has the best chance of winning in the fall? That may mean resisting impassioned pleas that ring true to you — whether it is barring Muslims from entering the U.S. or establishing single-payer health care.
Beyond this year, is there is a better way? Answer: Yes — but we need a bit less euphoria and a bit more realism. In our mania for a democratic process within the parties, we’ve lost sight of a valuable role that party leaders do play. Their jobs are to win the general election, and that puts their focus on appealing to most voters. That attention to the majority has been lost in today’s nomination process.
How to bring it back is the sober question for the next round of reforms that should start after November.
Lawrence R. Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He is coauthor with Desmond King of “Fed Power: How Finance Wins,” forthcoming in March 2016 from Oxford University Press.