Our Presidential Nomination Process Is Nuts

From left: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Fla., June 27, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Candidates are beholden to small-dollar donors — the extremists who form the base.

Whew! Those debates this week. Hoo boy.

There have been a number of solid takes about the leftward lurch of the Democratic party. I want to offer my own perspective, looking at why the candidates take positions that are far outside the mainstream. In the short term, it may be good for the Republicans that the Democrats are so prone to adopting radical and radically unpopular positions. But in the long run, if we are ever to get our politics back to where we’d like, we need to get a handle on these insane nomination processes, on both sides.

Over the past quarter century, the Democrats have undergone a wholesale revolution in campaign finance. Whereas Democratic campaigns were once funded by labor unions, New Left public-interest groups, and corporations friendly to left-wing causes, candidates are relying more and more on small donors.

This has been a boon for the party’s coffers, as Democrats have been able to raise eye-popping totals from the socioeconomically upscale portion of their base, more than they ever could accumulate through the old channels. It has also freed the party from the stigma of being in hock to labor unions or other interest groups, which often harmed Democrats’ ability to compete in places where unions are not especially strong.

But the new role of small donors has also shifted the incentives of primary-campaign candidates, in ways that were on display this week. If your goal as a candidate is to maximize your haul from small-dollar donors who are not affiliated with a professional interest group, then you’re basically chasing the Rachel Maddow Show crowd — hyper-engaged, public-spirited progressives. They do not constitute a majority of the party, or of the country. But a lot of them have Act Blue bookmarked on Google Chrome.

The campaign rules established by the party this year — whereby candidates have to secure a certain number of donors and a certain percentage of support in the major polls — reinforce the influence of these donors. Candidates are desperate to get these people to contribute just a dollar, not for so much for that dollar’s ability to buy the candidate campaign services, but to establish the candidate’s viability in the eyes of the party. (And of course there is a long-term opportunity in acquiring new donors, but you can’t reap those benefits if you do not qualify for the next debate.)

These kinds of donors do not have the kind of power that a Walter Reuther or George Meany could exercise in the post-war decades, but they’re not just going to give their cash away to any old schmo. You have to say things that they want to hear. Progressive things. Very progressive things — like open borders and free health care for illegal immigrants.

That is what we saw this week: a Democratic cattle call for the progressive donor base.

If I were a Democrat, this would frustrate me deeply. It sure is a stupid way to run a party! Forcing candidates to take extreme views that will hurt them in the general election just so they can raise cash for the primaries — oh yeah, that is brilliant.

(Obligatory “to be sure” quote coming up)

To be sure, the Republicans have similar problems. In general, politically minded people on both sides do not think about our nominating system in terms of raw power politics — who gets to pick the nominee? If the power is currently distributed in such a way as to hamper a party’s ability to win the general election by forcing would-be nominees to take highly unpopular stands, then power needs to be redistributed. But I’m not a Democrat, that is their business, and they are aren’t going to listen to me.

The real concern for me as a citizen is who may end up being governed by one of these loons. The good news is that I think the candidates were blowing smoke this week to the donors, who really have no recourse against a president of their own party. In at least 100 years, no faction in a political party has been more powerful than the president. Even at the peak of its once expansive powers, Big Labor could never deny an incumbent Democrat renomination. Instead, they tended to fall behind the president, perhaps with some bellyaching. (Not always, they split ranks in 1980, with half of labor backing Ted Kennedy, but that was under exceptional circumstances. If anything, the lesson of 1980 was “Don’t split the party, because it will just help the other side.”)

So my guess is that all those Democrats who pledged the other night to offer social welfare to illegal aliens would ditch those pledges as soon as they got into the White House. And the progressive base would be okay with it — even if they were unhappy, they’d back the Democratic nominee in four years, anyway.

Yet even if we downplay the specifics of this week’s pie-in-the-sky promises, the thematics were not altogether comforting. The days of the Democrats nominating basically moderate candidates who had some progressive instincts looks to be pretty much over, at least for now. Instead, all of these would-be nominees are going to be as progressive as they think they can get away with and maybe even a little more than that.

That is scary, and it demonstrates that the electorate at large is not being served by either party. In thrall to their progressive base, the Democrats are not grounded by any semblance of pragmatism. (Again, to be sure, the GOP has similar problems, having nominated a candidate for office in 2016 whom most Americans were dubious about.) And isn’t it reasonable for middle-of-the-road voters to expect the two sides to nominate candidates who are not going to blow up the social, political, and economic contract because of their commitment to some set of goofball abstract principles?

I think it is. So, while the partisan in me might be glad to see the Democrats falling victim to a disordered nomination process, the citizen in me recognizes that both parties need to redesign their nomination procedures to keep the interests of the whole nation in mind. Put bluntly: We need to figure out a way to get these increasingly zany nomination contests under control.

Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.


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