The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
For all its faults, the 2016 campaign has one shimmering achievement: The presidential race has identified a form of representative democracy that arouses more bipartisan hatred than the United States Congress.
Political party conventions were designed as decision-making bodies, which is how Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were nominated for president. But the spread of presidential primaries after the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention has created the widespread expectation of voter sovereignty.
A new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 62 percent of Republicans believe that the candidate who goes into the Cleveland convention with the most delegates—even if it is far short of a majority—should be the nominee. In contrast, only 33 percent believe that the GOP delegates should pick the party’s best candidate.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is stymied by party rules that rigidly allocate delegates proportionally so that it is virtually impossible for him to erase Hillary Clinton’s current lead of more than 200 pledged delegates. (Clinton had the identical problem against Barack Obama in 2008).
Sanders and his supporters keep grousing at the unfairness of it all. They rail against Democratic super-delegates (elected officials and party stalwarts) who have declared for Clinton by a lopsided 469-to-31 margin. They hint that maybe there should be another standard—momentum or states won (Wyoming looks awfully big on a map)—to govern the choice of a nominee.
Lost amid the controversy in both parties is the reality that there are serious reasons why convention delegates should be allowed to be more than just a funny-hatted TV backdrop. A contested convention—which is a growing possibility on the Republican side—is a legitimate form of representative democracy rather than a dastardly plot by party bosses to stifle the People.
A political party is more than just random primary voters. It also consists of elected officials (especially those on the ballot in a presidential year), financial donors and loyalists who take on thankless jobs like organizing the county party’s annual dinner. The Democrats recognize this shared responsibility through the creation of the unfairly maligned super-delegates who will cast about 15 percent of the votes in Philadelphia.
The Republicans honor these party loyalists differently: by allowing them to become convention delegates even if their favored candidate bombs out. In most states, the Republicans select their convention delegates independently of the presidential primary or caucuses. Take Indiana, for example, which votes May 5. The individual Indiana delegates, who will be bound on the first ballot by the results of the primary, were selected at party meetings earlier this month.
The future of elected officials in both parties will be shaped by whoever is at the top of their tickets in November. As a result, a Senate candidate in a tough race has more at stake in the choice of a presidential nominee than, say, a typical primary voter. That is why candidates and party officials deserve a louder voice in the choice of a presidential nominee. For in the end, a political party is not a suicide pact.
There is also the widely shared misconception that presidential primaries represent a high point of democracy. In truth, primaries operate under a hodgepodge of different rules: Independents can pick their primary in New Hampshire; Democrats can ask for a Republican ballot in Ohio; and New Yorkers are locked into their prior party registration.
Party-run caucuses are dicier. Beyond their undemocratic elements (rigid times and no absentee ballots) and their disorganization (it took two weeks in 2012 to anoint Rick Santorum the winner of the Iowa caucuses), most caucuses are embarrassingly low-turnout affairs. Fewer than 900 Republicans participated in the Wyoming caucuses, which divvied up 11 delegates. And don’t get me started on the nine Donald Trump delegates selected at the Northern Mariana Islands caucuses.
The biggest difference between presidential primaries and the November election is that the nomination contests sprawl over a four-month period. The choices on the February 9 New Hampshire primary ballot—and their implications—were far removed from the Trump-John Kasich-Ted Cruz decision that awaits California Republicans on June 7. No one would consider a presidential election democratic if some states voted in July and others waited until the traditional Election Day.
This time lag is inevitable if we maintain the current system for nominating presidents. The only way that all voters could vote simultaneously would be to hold a national primary. Not only would such a primary give an advantage to candidates with the largest Super PACs, but it could also produce an undemocratic result. For example, if a divisive candidate like Trump won the national primary with, say, 28 percent of the vote, would the Republicans be obligated to nominate someone opposed by 72 percent of its voters?
With a four-month gap in the current political calendar, buyer’s remorse has the potential to become a major problem. (I have borrowed the following scenario from Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of the invaluable Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates).
Let’s go back to 2008 and imagine that John Edwards (the 2004 vice-presidential nominee) is heading to the Democratic Convention in Denver with a majority he legitimately won in the primaries. Just as the delegates arrive in Denver, the sex scandal story that destroyed Edwards’ political career breaks. Under these circumstances, should the Democrats have slavishly followed the results of the primaries?
Of course not.
Democrats have an escape clause with party rules that allow elected delegates and to shift their preferences in such exceptional circumstances. But if the delegates were automatons bound to the results of the primaries and caucuses (the current GOP rules in most states for the first ballot), the Republicans would be forced to nominate a fatally flawed candidate.
The battle cry of “Let the delegates decide” will never rival “Give me liberty or give me death.” But treating a convention like a decision-making body remains the best solution when a political party refuses to come to a consensus on its presidential nominee.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist for Roll Call who is covering his tenth presidential campaign. He has also worked for two newspapers (USA Today and The Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and The Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Slate). He has also been a columnist for Yahoo! News. He is the author of “One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In,” a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by PublicAffairs in 2003. Shapiro teaches a political science seminar on the news media and the 2012 campaign at Yale. And he is working on a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.