In 1964, an optimistic theory was slain, as such theories often are, by reality. Bernie Sanders’s supporters should take note. So should all who are interested in rethinking how the parties choose presidential nominees.
The “conservatives in the woodwork” theory was: Millions of conservatives, bored by centrist presidential candidates, skipped elections but would pour out of the woodwork and into polling places if offered “a choice, not an echo.” So, conservative Republicans achieved the nomination of Barry Goldwater, who then lost 44 states, partly because those swarms of nonvoting conservatives were mostly fictitious. A conservative majority had to be patiently made, which took 16 years.
Goldwater understood that after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a distraught nation would not choose to have a third president in 14 months. But he also thought that his candidacy could make his party markedly more conservative. If Sanders has a “socialists in the woodwork” theory, he is daft. But some Sanders supporters might think a second Donald Trump term is an acceptable price to pay for a Sanders nomination that moves his party as dramatically leftward as Goldwater’s nomination moved his party rightward.
The nation, however, needs a nominating process that minimizes the probability of kamikaze candidacies and maximizes the probability of selecting plausible presidents. Hence it needs a retreat from the populist idea that the voice of the people is easy to ascertain and should be translated, unmediated and unrefined, directly into nominee selection. Populism has been embraced by both parties since 1968, when Hubert Humphrey won the Democrats’ nomination without entering any primaries. (Although a switch of about 300,000 November votes spread over four states would have made him president.)
(Side note: Nostalgic liberals say that Sirhan Sirhan took away Robert Kennedy’s chance of becoming president by shooting him. CBS’ coverage of Kennedy’s assassination was preceded by a report from Mike Wallace saying that, based on the information CBS was able to gather, Humphrey was likely to have already locked up the nomination, regardless of the California primary results. Humphrey did not himself run in primaries because by the time Lyndon Johnson said he would not seek and he would not accept the nomination of his party as your president the deadlines to enter the primaries had passed, though stand-in candidates did run on his behalf.)
In 1972, Democrats made their process more plebiscitary — more primaries, less influence for political professionals — to elicit and echo the vox populi. This, however, produced a nominee favored by the party’s most intense minority, the anti-Vietnam War cohort: South Dakota Sen. George McGovern lost 49 states. Twelve presidential election cycles later, both parties are still uncomfortably holding the populist wolf by the ears.
Political scientist Raymond J. La Raja and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution recommend a recalibration. They do not favor what political realities would not permit: abandoning primaries. (La Raja and Rauch prefer them to caucuses, which are more susceptible to capture by the elderly and those “for whom politics is a passion.”) Rather, they recommend leavening mass participation with vetting by professionals — “political careerists with skin in the game” serving as gatekeepers or quality-control evaluators of candidates before the primaries begin. “In 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee worked aggressively to weed out weak and extreme candidates in swing districts.”
Doing something similar in presidential politics is difficult. The process has no gatekeepers: Remember the 2012 cycle, when Herman Cain had his 15 minutes as a front-runner? Misguided campaign finance regulations have diverted money away from experienced parties to unseasoned groups with minority agendas. The 2016 process illustrated the difficulty of aggregating voters’ preferences when there are many candidates: A demagogic charlatan won without winning a majority of primary votes until after the nomination was effectively settled. Sanders’s success so far this year demonstrates La Raja and Rauch’s warning that in a congested field of candidates, many will shun coalition-building in favor of wooing purists.
In 1924, the parties’ professionals blocked the presidential ambitions of industrialist Henry Ford, a racist and anti-Semite. In 1976, Democratic insiders helped clear the field in Florida’s presidential primary to enable Jimmy Carter to end the candidacy of the racist George Wallace. Today, however, the power of party professionals is negligible compared with that of the media. They prefer flamboyant political showhorses to transactional, coalition-building workhorses, and become accomplices of fringe candidates and combative amateurs.
La Raja and Rauch suggest various “filters” by political professionals to mitigate the “democracy fundamentalism” of today’s nomination process: e.g., more political professionals as “superdelegates” eligible to vote on conventions’ first ballots; pre-primary votes of confidence in candidates by members of Congress and governors; “abolishing or dramatically increasing” contribution limits to the parties. But a precondition for all improvement is, they acknowledge, “to change the mindset that regards popular elections as the only acceptable way to choose nominees.”
Limiting and influencing voters’ choices by involving professional politicians early in the nomination process would require risk-averse political professionals to go against today’s populist sensibility. But if this November the choice is between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the professionals might consider letting go of the wolf’s ears.
On the other hand: When I first saw Will’s post a commenter made a snarky comment about Will, an anti-Trump conservative, giving advice to Democrats. (Because the Democrats are doing such an excellent job these days. As non-conservative Chris Matthews put it in the wake of the Iowa Caucus tragicomedy, Democrats can’t organize a three-car funeral.)
Blogger Ann Althouse wrote last year:
Why are Democrats having such a hard time just being normal? Trump is so abnormal that it would seem that he can be defeated by simple, boring normality. But that’s not exciting enough, apparently, and Democrats have decided to go even further beyond the norm.