The Reform of the Democratic Presidential Nomination Process

The Democratic primary election rules direly need to be reformed. Admittedly, it would seem at first glance that raising this issue seems to be a bit premature. Yet the primary election rules that will affect 2012 and beyond will be set by the DNC at the 2010 convention. This is especially true since DNC Chair Tim Kaine has already created a Democratic Change Commission, which will recommend changes to the Democratic Party’s rules for the 2012 presidential nominating and delegate selection process so that 2012 and beyond never becomes the quagmire that 2008 was. The Democratic Change Commission will address three issues: 1) changing the window of time during which primaries and caucuses may be held 2) reducing the number of super delegates and 3) improving the caucus system. The Commission must issue its report and recommendations to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee no later than January 1, 2010. Therefore criticism of the current system now is quite appropriate as it affects the future shape of a system that governs the way Americans may exercise their civic duties.

Looking back on the Election 2008, I fully agreed with Hillary Clinton supporters advocating for the abolition of the caucus system. At the time, of course, Obama supporters were suspicious that such criticism was due to anger that Clinton lost the Democratic presidential primary.  This may have been true for some; but the evidence, I think, overwhelmingly shows that the caucus system is flawed.

This should be a no-brainer in the Democratic Party. Caucuses undermine core Democratic values because it is inherently a very undemocratic way to nominate someone. A caucus inevitably is unfair to the elderly, the disabled, shift workers, parents, Americans overseas, our armed forces, and those whose circumstances prevent them from sitting for hours in a caucus vote. In a primary people have almost all day to vote (in addition to weeks of early voting) whereas a caucus lasts only a few hours, usually in the evening (past midnight in Texas last year!) and this obviously disenfranchises voters with obligations that prevent them from participating.

Many caucus rules produce undemocratic results. For example, in the rules for certain states if a precinct is entitled to elect four delegates to the county convention and the vote is 59 percent for candidate A and 41 percent for candidate B, the oh-so-intelligible mathematical rules  may require a 2-2 division because candidate A did not win 60 percent. Therefore, a 59 percent to 41 percent election result—a landslide—results in an even split of delegates, effectively a 50-50 tie despite the obviousness of a victory.

The worse case is undoubtedly in Texas. Have you heard of the “Texas Two Step”? Under this “brilliant” system, nearly three million voters participated in the 2008 Texas Democratic primary. The polls closed at 7 p.m. and then the Texas caucus began. The people who voted in the primary could and were encouraged to return later and vote again! To make matters worse, not all votes are equal. For example, say that you live in Houston or Austin and the 2006 Democratic candidate for governor carried your precinct by a large margin, your vote could be twice, or even three times as influential as if you were a Democrat who lived elsewhere in a small, probably rural Republican-oriented county (whom I imagine were likely supporting Clinton).

This is surely some sort of violation of the one vote, one person principle. Should this not somewhat embarrass a party that calls itself the Democratic Party?

The problem only grows worse. The average turnout in the caucuses, which President Obama did very well in, for all of 2008, was around 10 percent. Even in the highest profile caucus of them all in Iowa, home of those-who-must-always-go-first, 218,000 people caucused in a state with nearly 3 million citizens (a 7.3% showing). It does not get any better in other states: New Mexico had 11%, Nevada 9%, Minnesota and Maine 5%, North Dakota 4%, Colorado and Nebraska 3%, Idaho, Wyoming, and Kansas 2%.

Some time ago Democrats switched from winner-take-all contests to a proportional allocation of delegates to be more “fair.” Well, the current system is anything but fair with the silly mathematical formulas for allocating delegates.

For example, in the Texas primary, Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama by a margin of over a 100,000 votes out of nearly 3 million voters. Clinton was awarded 65 delegates while Obama received 61. However, the 42,538 of voters (1.4% of primary voters) who also participated in the caucus overturned the will of the other 98.6%! By result of the caucus, Obama won 38 more delegates to Clinton’s 29. Altogether, Obama left Texas with 99 delegates to Clinton’s 94 despite the fact that Clinton handily won the contest where votes were actually counted. Talk about stealing democracy from the people by an exclusionary process.

The mathematical insanity is displayed elsewhere. Hillary won the Nevada caucus and the New Hampshire primary yet in both Obama left with more delegates! The scenario is arguably more problematic in Idaho and New Jersey. First, in Idaho, about 21,000 Democrats gathered for the caucus. Obama won in a blowout margin of 13,000 (61%) supporting him. For that, he won 15 delegates to only 3 for Clinton—a net gain of 12 delegates. In New Jersey, Clinton won by a margin of 110,000 votes out of more than a million. For that she won 59 delegates to Obama’s 48—a net gain of 12 delegates.

Proportionality aside, I had (and have) serious qualms with the fact that Obama could collect more net delegates for beating Clinton by 13,000 votes in one state than she does for beating Obama by 110,000 in another. If the mathematical formula was consistent with Idaho where Obama won 15 out of 18 delegates for winning a state with just over 21,000 Democratic votes, then, using the math of a net of 12 delegates per 13,000 vote advantage, Clinton’s 215,000 marginal victory in Pennsylvania should have yielded a net gain of 198 delegates. Instead, she garnered only 12 delegates.

In this case, an Idaho Democrat’s vote counted 16 times more than a Pennsylvania Democrat’s vote. The system obviously rewards blowout wins in small states and minimizes wins even of 10 or 12 percentage points in big states. This causes the primary season to drag out and makes it almost impossible for candidates to get a considerable lead in a competitive contest. Moreover, why should a few thousand people in Idaho have an absurdly large say ultimately quelling a few million in Pennsylvania?

To be clear, it is perfectly understood that the delegates were allocated based on the percentage margin of victory. So Obama’s 61% margin in Idaho earned him a large share of the delegates whereas Clinton’s 10% margin in Pennsylvania yielded a small gain of delegates. This is undeniably understood.

What is the problem with that? It appears to me to be bad politics. Across the board because caucuses disenfranchise; more people vote in primaries than they do in caucuses. There were no exceptions in Election 2008. Thus it follows that primary results are much more indicative of voter preference by necessity because of larger sample sizes than the caucus results. It is quite obvious that I believe that Hillary Clinton would have obliterated Barack Obama in a primary-only system and inevitably the groups disenfranchised by caucuses were undoubtedly inclined to be Clinton supporters, thus, giving Barack Obama an advantage. This is not an issue, i.e. a grudge, beyond the structural and systematic problems. Barack Obama is the President of the United States. There is no reason to labor to rant about how his initial primary win was because of a flawed system.

Looking toward the future, it seems best that in a primary-caucus system, primaries should get more delegate emphasis if the will of the people is what is to be discerned. This would have to be ironed out and just election rules should be established, but the current method is hardly satisfying.

My personal suggestions for the Democratic Party:

  1. Abolish the caucus system. Don’t try to bandage it, fix it up, or anything. Just kill it.
  2. Require all states to have primaries.
  3. Do away with proportional delegate allocation and require a winner-take all system, or if we must, allow states to decide how they will allocate their delegates. But it would be best to align the nominating system with the Electoral College system for electing presidents—unlike many Democrats, I do not support abolishing the Electoral College.
  4. Eliminate the super delegates! Speaker Pelosi said she opposed the idea of having them from the beginning and I firmly believe she was the most biased and worst behaved. If the political big wigs want to give endorsements and try to sway voters, let them, as long as their advocacy does not count as any sort of delegation. By all means, 800 super delegates is beyond excessive and it easily allows party insiders to back a single candidate, perhaps, to the chagrin of the voters. We are Democrats—let the voters decide; presidential primaries should not be a popularity contest amongst colleagues.  
  5. Divide the country into five regions and have five “super Tuesdays.” The primaries should be closer together, say, every three weeks—which would total five primary election days. It should began around the last week of January or the first week of February. The five regions should be allowed to rotate every four years—eliminating future possibilities to have another Florida and Michigan controversy and abolishing the so-called divine right of Iowa and New Hampshire to always go first.

These suggestions appear to be sensible and fair. This is why they are not likely to appear in the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating system anytime soon. From what I have read so far, it is not quite going to end up this way, but one can always pray.

11 Responses to The Reform of the Democratic Presidential Nomination Process

  1. Todd says:

    By “quagmire,” they seem to mean “not wrapped up by Ash Wednesday.”

    Would that each party have two or more candidates going through the ringer to the finish line every four years.

  2. I think your suggestions here are pretty dead on, indeed, I think it would end up with a significantly better primarily process than the GOP has right now. I especially like the idea of five “super Tuesdays” rather than the current long road, which places inordinate emphasis on who won the “latest victory” and who has “momentum”.

    Thinking about the GOP process (which obviously I have more personal stake in ), I don’t have as many issues with it as it currently stands, aside from the obviously poor quality of the candidate pool the last few times around.

  3. Art Deco says:

    Why not both parties have their primaries the second week of June, the first round of caucuses the 2d week of June, and the final round of caucuses the 3d week of June; they can then convene the 2d week of August.

    The quality of the candidate pool has been most distressing of late. I seem to recall a set of Democratic candidates which included Michael Dukakis and Bruce Babbitt being referred to derisively as ‘the seven dwarfs’. That was then. Last year, you had 15 candidates in the ring and perhaps five (Richardson, Giuliani, Huckabee, Romney, and ?McCain) had much business running. And who wins but the fellow who is the least prepared for the position (and in the midst of a once-in-a-half-century financial crisis, yet). It all seems like a chastisement. Reconfiguring the nominating process might help, but I suspect the problem is cultural – who is attracted to and retained in the body of electoral politicians.

  4. jh says:

    I have to admit I kinda of like it the way it is. I see the retail aspect of Iowa and New Hampshire as providing something importnat. It even helps the people find their message as it were. South Carolina seems to play a important role for too in giving the more Establishment a voice. S.C. might have seceded but they look at any radicalism (in either the left or right) as to the people running with a microscope.

    As for Super Regional Primaries I am not sure that is a good thing at all. It seems that just very well funded could run. Huckabee slightly bucked this trend but he was very much helped by being a Southern guy. Plus being a Southern guy from the Mid South where because of the media market he was know in crucial areas of adjoining States (Western Tenn, a good bit of Mississippi, Oklahoma). So the fact he was able to do what he did with the lack of money he had I think is the exception not the rule. Still on the other side McCain was vastly outspent in California and did well.

    It seems to me that Super Regionals would also empahsis the URBAN vote over the rural vote. That is already done to a great extent in the General. Are states really helped by just more “airport stops”

    The key for the democrats are their particular apportionment rules. In many ways that gave a huge perhaps unfair advantage to Obama. Disctricts that had voted heavy democrat in the past were given more delegates in many places.

    This is unlike for intance the apportionment rules for the GOP in such places as California where it was by Congressional district.

    THe second problem democrats is with various quotas and the such. It should be recalled that while it seems not such a big deal now these delgates do other work at the convention. The changing to quotas is one reason the Dems are not a pro-life party anymore as has been well documented in how that came about. (THe Coup against the Catholic Bosses).

    I have no problem with how long the races are. The longer the better.

    The problem for Clinton was it was so set up that once democrat voters starting having misgivings about Obama she could not catch up and thus the story was not Democrat misgivings but “When will Hillary bow out”.

  5. Eric Brown says:


    I don’t think five “super Tuesdays” would benefit well-funded candidate anymore than the current system. One problem was that Obama’s capaibility to raise money was astonishing; he literally could blow a load of his cash and re-load via the internet over a weekend. Some of Clinton’s greatest victories were when she was outspent 5 and 4 to 1.

    As far long primaries, I don’t think it is better. It becomes a melodramatic horse race that is awfully lacking in substance.

  6. Eric,

    You are right; the whole primary season is way too long. It should be two weeks long, no more nor less. That is long enough in today’s world, where a candidate does not have to go all around the states to give everyone a chance to hear them.

    Beyond that, the real reform would be to change the electoral system so that minor parties can use whatever votes they get and give it over to larger and larger parties, like they do in Australia. This would make the large parties have to listen to the little ones and their interests, for if they do not, it could break them.

  7. restrainedradical says:

    Last year, the Economist made a convincing case for the early single-state primaries. Voters get to know the candidates better when they concentrate all their resources in a single state. I would put two or three single-state primaries up front followed by a single Super-Duper-Tuesday. The single-state primaries can be rotated. Hawaii would actually matter every once in a while.

    I’d also compact the whole thing. Start the primaries in the summer.

  8. Eric Brown says:

    I would follow such a suggestion if we moved the primaries back a bit and there were no caucuses. If it looked something like this.

    Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Colorado each had a primary beginning in late April through May (one each week). These states wouldn’t always go first; the states would rotate each election cycle.

    The rest of the country on a single Tuesday, either the last in May or the first in June would vote. There would be a candidate who would then focus all their energy on the general election.

  9. Art Deco says:

    he Economist made a convincing case for the early single-state primaries. Voters get to know the candidates better when they concentrate all their resources in a single state.

    Those voters, not the rest of us.

    Beyond that, the real reform would be to change the electoral system so that minor parties can use whatever votes they get and give it over to larger and larger parties, like they do in Australia.

    Yes, ordinal balloting for executive positions would be desirable, though it would take several days to tabulate.

    One might consider replacing nomination by party convention with nomination by state legislatures (or nomination and election).

  10. restrainedradical says:

    The alternative to single-state primaries is to have all voters equally uninformed about the candidates.

    Beyond that, the real reform would be to change the electoral system so that minor parties can use whatever votes they get and give it over to larger and larger parties, like they do in Australia.

    That’s simpler but less optimal than allowing the voters themselves to pick a second choice.

    Yes, ordinal balloting for executive positions would be desirable, though it would take several days to tabulate.

    Unless we have computerized ballots.

    One might consider replacing nomination by party convention with nomination by state legislatures (or nomination and election).

    I fear that that will lead to nomination by seniority within the party and too much political quid pro quo. For it to work well, we’d need term limits for state legislatures and some way to ban state legislators from benefiting from their support of a candidate.

  11. Blackadder says:

    The alternative to single-state primaries is to have all voters equally uninformed about the candidates.

    Isn’t that the definition of democracy?

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