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The Democratic Process and the Primary Race So Far

The Democratic contest has failed to promote the values of democracy, writes Brennan Center Fellow Walter Shapiro.

March 2, 2020
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty

Saturday’s South Carolina primary would have been a watershed in the Democratic race even if it had not prompted the withdrawals of Pete Buttigieg and self-funder Tom Steyer. The last of the four early states with a protected spot at the front of the Democratic calendar, South Carolina, was the final moment when personal campaigning mattered — and talking to voters represented more than a symbolic act for the TV cameras.

The surviving candidates have now embarked on a flyover campaign in which America becomes a blur of airport tarmacs as they race from media market to media market. Monster rallies are now the coin of the realm as time is too short for voter questions except at staged made-for-television events.

On Super Tuesday, voters in 14 states will pick more than one-third of the delegates to the Democratic convention in Milwaukee. And it is an apt time to reflect on all the ways that the 2020 presidential race has failed to promote the values of democracy, no matter which candidate eventually emerges from the Democratic scrum. 

Begin with the irrationality of Super Tuesday itself, when too many Democrats will be casting ballots with too little deliberation.

During the week leading up to it, voters will have had to assess the contentious South Carolina debate, Joe Biden’s resounding triumph in the primary and the withdrawal of two major candidates. Since this is a year when many Democrats are voting strategically — polls continually show that electability is more important than ideology in choosing a candidate — these are not minor considerations. But the kinetic pace of Campaign 2020 means that there will be almost no time to discuss these events with family, friends, or co-workers prior to voting.

Since states control the timing of primaries, political parties have always had a limited arsenal of weapons to prevent the clustering of contests on a single day. In theory, you can understand the zeal of legislatures to make sure that their states vote before the nomination fight is wrapped up. The reality is that no state — not even California or Texas — gets more than fleeting attention from the candidates when so many delegates are at stake on a single day.

The challenge in competing over a Super Tuesday terrain that literally stretches from coast to coast is obviously the cost. That would be the case even if Michael Bloomberg had not already spent more than $500 million on TV ads — a truly staggering sum.

Until the 2020 campaign, Democrats had stoutly resisted deploying super PACs in presidential primaries. This is in marked contrast to the Republicans who made Jeb Bush the initial 2016 frontrunner because of the purported power of his $120 million super PAC.

But necessity is the mother of moral compromise. Beginning with former Vice President Joe Biden and continuing through Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the leading Democrats have dropped their principled objections to deploying super PACs. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, who sits atop of a gusher of online fundraising, has the support of Our Revolution, an outside group that he founded that does not have to disclose its donors.

Warren, though, is the saddest case, since she has consistently disdained super PACs dating back to her initial high-profile 2012 Senate campaign against Republican Scott Brown. But with her campaign hanging by a thread after weak finishes in the first four contests, she is now depending on a newly formed super PAC (Persist PAC) to fund a $9 million ad campaign in the Super Tuesday states.

In the political obituaries of Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential ambitions, there was a consistent theme: the former Indiana mayor was deprived of the polling bounce from his apparent victory in the opening-gun Iowa caucuses by the inability of the state Democratic Party to count votes. It took nearly four weeks for the state party to certify the results (Buttigieg received 14 delegates and runner-up Sanders got 12) — and the Associated Press has yet to call a winner in the contest.

Only the unequivocal nature of Sanders’s sweep in the Nevada caucuses prevented a similarly confusing long count. But Nevada illustrated the inherent problem with party-run caucuses — they discourage turnout. Even with unprecedented arrangements for early voting in Nevada, the caucuses brought out only about one-fifth as many Democrats as voted for Hillary Clinton in the state in the 2016 general election.

In all likelihood, the Democratic Party will outlaw future caucuses based on the Iowa and Nevada model. But the debate criteria championed by DNC Chair Tom Perez also added an aura of unfairness to the 2020 Democratic race. By requiring arbitrary polling and online donor thresholds to qualify for the debates, Perez doomed the candidacies of three senators (Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet) and two sitting governors (Jay Inslee and Steve Bullock). For, as 2019 proved, there was no path to return from exile for any candidate — billionaires aside — who did not qualify for a series of debates.

Then in February, Perez did an about-face by dropping the donor thresholds so that Bloomberg could participate in the Nevada and South Carolina debates. It didn’t matter that Bloomberg was skipping these early states because, well, the rules are always different for billionaire self-funders. In similar fashion, Tom Steyer (who failed to win a single delegate in Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada) got to reappear on the debate stage in South Carolina through the magic of evanescent polls.

The problem with reforming how we nominate presidential candidates is simple. If the Democrats win back the White House in 2020, the party will decide that most of the rules that governed the nomination fight were the stuff of genius. And if Donald Trump is reelected, the dispirited Democrats will feel that they have far more serious problems than risking a bitter internal battle over dramatically revamping the 2024 rules.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.