This is a guest post by Brant Frost, Chairman of the Coweta County Republican Party.
To begin, I’d like to talk a bit about how my own feelings on this issue evolved over time. For many years I assumed that nominating a candidate for office by a primary system was how it has always been done. But the more I studied it, the more I learned that this was not the case. I learned that the convention method was a very efficient and fair way of choosing presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional nominees.
I learned that it was not elitist; average people came from all over the country or state to some central city to hammer out an agreement on who would lead the party.
I learned that it was open, in most respects: roll call votes were public, the speeches were public, and so on. You can go online and find all of the formal acceptance addresses and a lot of the nominating addresses without much effort. Very little of it was hammered out in secret; correspondence from generations long gone suggest that there was much less wheeling and dealing than we might otherwise expect, at least by the nominees themselves, who usually stayed away from the convention for fear of giving the impression that they were actively in pursuit of the prize.
I learned that the nominees tended to be fair reflections of the sentiment of the party during the period. A great example of this was the victory of William Jennings Bryan in the Democratic nomination in 1896. He was young and inexperienced, certainly not what you’d call an insider, but he tapped into the mood in his own party, and it gave him the nomination.
And I learned that, by and large, the nominees tended to be decent men. For instance, when you look at the Gilded Age – which spans from 1865-1893– it was a very corrupt time in politics; but when you look at the nominees on both sides, you generally see honorable human beings.
There are five points I would like you to consider;
1. The current process doesn’t encourage deliberation.
The political scientist E. E. Schattschneider once said, “The people are a sovereign whose vocabulary is limited to two words, Yes and No. This sovereign, moreover can speak only when spoken to. As interlocutors of the people the parties frame the question and elicit the answers.” 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.
Without the parties offering clear choices, we’d have electoral competitions much like those in the big cities like Chicago, where political lines were drawn according to unsophisticated racial/ethnic/demographic cleavages, backroom dealings, patronage, petty grudges between politicians, or media inspired “momentum”.
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 Huckabee, Trump, Bachmann, Palin, 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, 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 convention system, 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 get behind and enthusiastically support.
In 2008, John McCain won just 23% of the pre-Super Tuesday vote but won 43% of the delegates. In 2012, Mitt Romney won just 36% of the pre-Super Tuesday vote but won 54% of the delegates. Rick Santorum in contrast, won 27% of the vote but received just 9% of the delegates.
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 23 percent and not 36 percent. At least 50 percent plus one, and preferably a whole lot more.
3. The establishment is still in charge.
The people who replaced the convention system with an “open” process hoped it would take the power away from the establishment and give it to the people; in fact the opposite has occurred.
One would think that opening up the nomination process to the broader GOP electorate would diminish the power of the establishment, but that would be incorrect.
Money is the name of the game in the primary battle, and the establishment has plenty of it to spread around.
For instance, the top three GOP fundraisers in 2008 were Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Their hauls were overwhelmingly tilted to the establishment – Giuliani collected 55 percent of his money from those who gave more than $2,300, while Romney pulled in 48 percent and McCain collected 34 percent. What’s more, the securities/investment industry contributed nearly 10 percent of Giuliani and Romney’s total hauls, with the big banks (like Lehman and Citi) making up nearly 20 percent of those contributions.
In other words, the rise of the primary system has not degraded the power of the well-heeled Republican establishment. They may not have the votes, but they have the cash that candidates need for the votes.
4. The system is too expensive.
The primary campaigns of 2008 and 2012, saw Republican presidential candidates raising better than half a billion dollars (not counting SuperPACs). This was money dedicated not to campaigning against the Democrats, but against each other. In years past, when the nomination was settled at conventions, there was usually no need for such extravagant expenditures. You lined up your delegates and fought it out at the convention.
In 2010, the Republican candidate for governor in Georgia spent over $11,000,000.00 in the primary. Think of all the campaign dollars that could be re-allocated to campaigning against your actual opponents!
5. The system is not balanced.
In 1968 41% of the delegates were chosen by primary. In 2012 over 70% were chosen by primary. This places an unnecessary emphasis on expensive, exhausting, and divisive primaries.
6. The system is the unintended consequence of a failed liberal experiment.
The first major party convention happened in 1831 when the National Republicans nominated Henry Clay. The use of a convention was supposed to convey a sense of openness and consensus – Clay was the choice of a meeting of National Republicans from all across the country, who came to select him by their own volition. The Democrats followed suit in 1832, and it became a tradition for the party leadership to gather every four years to meet in the open to select a nominee and settle upon a platform.
The new system’s origins are not as venerable. The far left of the Democratic party had wanted to dump Hubert Humphrey in 1968 in favor of McCarthy or McGovern or some other far-left candidate. Humphrey was the vice-president and an old-time liberal, the kind that just are not around anymore, and he had the backing of President Lyndon Johnson and the party establishment. He won on the first ballot, despite not having participated in any primaries.
As a concession to the anti-war left, the establishment adopted a resolution at the convention that called for party reform – but they didn’t even think twice about it. They didn’t deliberate about whether it was a good idea, what it would mean for the party, or anything. They just passed it because they felt obliged to give the anti-war faction at least a gesture of good will. But the left-wingers knew an opening when they saw it. They dominated the reform process and pushed through a series of changes that they thought would open up the nomination process and give them an edge within the party. What they wanted were party nominating caucuses (like the Republicans), where this “New Politics” left could take advantage of its intense supporters and make sure nominees from the far left wing of the Democratic party would be selected. The reformers did not want primaries because they believed they would favor the ill-informed voters and probably the establishment candidates, like LBJ or Humphrey.
Yet in the end, the party establishment had the last laugh. The establishment didn’t like primaries either, but it figured they would keep the far-left from taking over the local party. So after the reformers laid down their broad guidelines for how the new system would work, the party establishment began adopting primaries like what we have today.
So, let’s put these two origin stories next to each other, to compare and contrast. The original nomination system was designed by people who wanted to find an open and democratic way to nominate Henry Clay, the greatest American statesmen between the Founding and the Civil War. This method stood the test of time for nearly 150 years because it worked for everybody (except the leftists of the 60s).
Today’s nomination system, on the other hand, is the product of far-left experimentation, which produced results that the know-it-all liberal do-gooders utterly failed to anticipate.
Which system sounds better to you?
Brant Frost V
Coweta County GOP Chairman