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Morning Jay: The Nomination Rules Are Rigged Against Grassroots Conservatives

6:00 AM, Jan 6, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Republicans all across America like to think of their coalition as the “party of Ronald Reagan,” but have you noticed how frequently the party nominates somebody who opposed Ronald Reagan in 1980?Since Reagan’s last nomination in 1984 the GOP has nominated four men to lead the Republican party into the presidential battle. Three of them were aligned against Reagan in the 1980 presidential nomination and the other was . . . John McCain.

Reagan toasting 1981

Once again, the GOP appears set to nominate such a candidate. Mitt Romney strikes me as a very capable and competent person, possessing many qualities needed in a good president and most definitely superior to the current one, but he is not a Reagan conservative.

So, here’s the question of the day: why can’t the party of Reagan ever seem to nominate a Reaganite?

My answer: because conservative Republicans are not actually in control of their own party. Though they are its animating force – they give it policy ideas to implement, they turn out regularly to support the party in good times and bad, they advocate the party and its ideology to their friends, neighbors, and relatives – they are not in charge, and have not been since the 1970s (arguably the 1920s, but that’s another story altogether).

The lefty do-gooders who spearheaded the reforms of the 1970s thought that they were saving the parties from the machine hacks, but in fact they threw out the baby with the bathwater. They effectively destroyed the party at the grassroots level, and handed the nominating power over to candidates, strategists, donors, the news media, and ill informed voters who dominate the primaries. The biggest losers in this scheme were the kinds of committed citizens who took the time to participate in local party affairs, and on the GOP side that inevitably meant the conservatives.

This is how I would mock up a modern primary battle, specifically a three-way race.


How does this play out in practice? Well, the center of activity is the electorate, which receives communications about the nomination battle from the media (be it mainstream or to a lesser extent conservative/alternative) as well as the candidates themselves. Now, candidates are better able to communicate with the voters based on how well they have performed in the “invisible primary,” the behind-the-scenes competition to lock down high powered donors, the top strategists, and the most impressive “letterhead” of endorsers.

Right away we should see a problem: There is no reason why the media or the participants in the “invisible” primary have to be in rhythm with the conservative pulse of the party. And indeed, they are regularly not – hence the establishment/anti-establishment meme of the last two years on the GOP side.

So if there are no mechanisms on that side of the contest to ensure good conservative nominees, what about the voters? Surely, they are quality conservatives who can tell which candidate would make the best leader for the next eight years?

Well, not really.

The next major problem with the process is that it is dominated by primaries, which tend to favor non-ideological, poorly informed voters who make decisions at the last minute and often based on trivialities. Consider, for instance, the ideological spreads of the electorates in the major pre-Super Tuesday contests in 2008.

As you can see, non-ideological moderates were often the most populous group. That is the big difference between the new system and the old system. Under the old system, such moderates typically would not have been paying enough attention or willing to commit sufficient time to participate in local party matters, so they basically did not have a say in the nomination. But now, thanks to the primaries, the only commitment is 10 minutes to half an hour once every four years; so, we get more of these non-ideological, marginal voters participating.

On top of this, there is strong evidence that primary voters are not very well informed. A shocking number make up their minds at virtually the last minute and spend more time focusing on personalities than issues.

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