A Reply to Publius

Today, Publius outlines his problems with the nomination system in general. They’re ones that have been heard before, but I’d like to take the opportunity to go through them point by point.

Replace Iowa and New Hampshire with Rotating Regional Calendar

This has become a fairly common criticism of the process, and it’s one that’s going to have to be addressed. Certainly, as states get more acrimonious to the role Iowa and New Hampshire play, this is going to be nearly impossible to maintain (and as he compellingly points out, at least in regards to Iowa this may in fact be bad for the country, as politicians are forced to coddle ethanol for viability). That said, replacing the early start states with an indiscriminately rotating schedule is not a good answer. One thing that should always be kept in mind in these discussions is that primaries are not Presidential elections. We have come to view them as such colloquially, but in practice the point of them is still to find the best candidate for each respective political party. The problem with indiscriminately rotating primaries is that, if bigger states end up at the front, grassroots candidates with little name recognition and inability to get the big checks will be shut out of the process. You’d have no Ronald Reagans or Bill Clintons, as the cost of campaigning in large media markets and the limited ability to pound the pavement would mitigate the balancing effect retail politics plays in a small state like New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, or Nevada. And we really would be staring down the barrel of a Giuliani-Clinton election this year.

If we are going to come up with some rotating schedule, we should do it in such a way that keeps smaller states with less burdensome media markets at the front.

Kill the Caucuses

I understand the problem with caucuses, I really do. They’re burdensome, arcane, and you can’t vote absentee. That said, I must go back to my earlier point, that primaries function to find the best candidate for the parties, and caucuses serve a valuable role in that. Caucuses are a unique challenge that force a campaign to adapt to a specific set of challenges and showcase different strengths, namely in the realm of organizational prowess and ability to mobilize voters. For example, without caucuses in this cycle, the Democratic Party might not have realized just how lacking in understanding and ability the Clinton campaign was in matters of organizational politics until it was too late. Is it a bit anti-democratic? Unfortunately yes, but that’s the difference between a general election and a nominating contest. After all, most of the minor parties still do things with only a convention.

The practical reasons for caucuses should also be kept in mind. Put simply, elections are not cheap to put on, and caucuses simply cost less money. When you look at the states who have caucuses, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, Kansas, etc., you’re looking at a list of smaller states who generally don’t have much impact on the nominating contest as a whole. It simply doesn’t make sense, from their perspective, to spend the money it would take to put on a statewide contest that won’t have much impact on the whole.

Kill the Superdelegates (Metaphorically)

I think this is illustrative of the effect media simplification can have; namely that people don’t seem to know the reason for superdelegates. In layman’s terms, superdelegates were created after Ted Kennedy, realizing he couldn’t win the nomination, attempted a floor fight for the soul of the party platform in 1980 that divided the party down the middle. It also took into account one of the problems with the post-1968 reforms; that shutting out the party insiders and officials left the party apparatus without a stake in the eventual nominee.

The purpose of superdelegates is rather simple; to give them a stake in the convention and a say in party matters ranging from the nominee to the platform to the minute rules discussions that go on there, without putting them in the precarious position of having to run against their constituents for delegate seats. The rationale is quite simple, by virtue of having been elected to their positions, be it governmental or party office, they then become convention delegates automatically. After that, they function no differentially than any other convention delegate, who are by rule not required to vote for any one particular candidate, as Hillary has taken to reminding us, even if right of approval makes them unlikely to be the kind of supporters who would jump ship, so to speak. Of course, the stigma of smoke filled rooms still exists, but one should probably also keep in mind that in the period between the McGovern reforms and the Hunt Commission that created superdelegates, Democrats managed to win only one election, Jimmy Carter’s in the immediate aftermath of Watergate. It should also be considered that superdelegates have never been dispositive on the nomination contest, and don’t seem inclined to change that anytime soon.