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Morning Jay: Let's Go Back to the Old Nomination System

6:00 AM, Dec 21, 2011 • By JAY COST
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To put this argument another way, democracy only makes sense as a system of government when the people are asked to choose between competing alternatives for a better society. That is, it’s not just the vote that matters, but what the vote means. Schattschneider’s argument is that the only way to give constructive meaning to a democratic contest is to have robust party competition – the quest for victory on both sides forces the parties to focus on the issues that matter most. Not all the time, of course, but rarely if ever can you find such meaning without the two parties actively competing.

Without the parties, we’d have electoral competitions much like those in the big cities or in the Solid South of 50 years ago, where political lines were drawn according to unsophisticated racial/ethnic/demographic cleavages, backroom dealings, patronage, or petty grudges between politicians.

Or, we would have something much like we have with the primary battles. Just like in the big cities or Solid South, these are democratic contests where the parties don’t matter – after all, they’re intraparty contests. And following Schattschneider, we should expect to see voters make relatively poor choices, lacking as they do a proper frame that can only be provided by the two parties.

That’s exactly what we do see. We see nomination battles often hinge on trivialities. Consider for instance, the strange rise and fall in the polls of Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich. Is this evidence of a deliberative public, or just people happily supporting the flavor of the week? I say the latter.

Troublingly, we often see people vote the same way they respond in the polls – just following the crowd and basing their support on who is getting the best publicity. We call that “momentum” – the strange phenomenon wherein a victory one week helps a candidate the next week; this kind of “bandwagon effect” is not a sign of careful deliberation – quite the opposite.

We also see patterns similar to what the Democrats produced in 2008 (and 1980 and 1984, for that matter), where votes break down according to demographic affinities. Again, this is not the sign of a deliberative process.

This is dangerous for the country as a whole. After all, one of the two major party nominees will almost certainly be the next president. And a very good example of that danger is the Jimmy Carter presidency, which would simply never have happened under the old system. Carter was wholly unsuited for the job of president – in fact some Georgia politicos had speculated that if he could have run for a second term as governor, he would have lost.

He did not win the Democratic nomination in 1976 because he convinced the Democratic party that he would be the best leader, but by running a personalized, biographical campaign that emphasized his superior morality and personal magnetism. Helping him along was momentum – that is, he won the New Hampshire primary, so he "earned" good press, and that helped him in Florida, and so on. And when he got into the White House, he was a disaster

2. The process does not demand consensus.

In the old way of doing business, the old-time conventions, it didn’t matter how long it took, a candidate had to get to half-plus-one of the delegates (and prior to 1936, Democrats had to get to 2/3rds). That meant the eventual nominee was a candidate whom everybody (or almost everybody) in the party could live with, as well as parting gifts for the losers – be it in the form of a favorable plank in the platform or the vice-presidential selection.

This is not the case for the modern system. Democrats regularly win the nomination with less than half of the primary electorate (Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all had less than 50 percent). And, in 2008, John McCain became the first GOP nominee in the modern era to win with less than half the vote; 53 percent of all Republicans preferred somebody other than McCain, yet he won anyway.

We take our parties for granted, but they are some of the oldest institutions in the modern world. They need to be taken care of, their reputations are of the highest importance. And if you ask me, the party’s nominee, who clearly is most responsible for the reputation of the party, should have the backing of the party itself. Not 35 percent, not 45 percent. At least 50 percent plus one, and preferably a whole lot more.

3. The establishment is still in charge.

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