Reforming the Nominating Process
Tue, 06/03/2008 - 7:21pm
Now that the last primary is done, it's time to look at the nominating process, what went right and wrong, and how to do better next time.
What Went Right
Tremendous excitement, leading to tremendous party-building
Everywhere that the Obama-Clinton traveling circus went, Democrats volunteered and were energized. In primary states they voted in record numbers. In caucus states they voted and signed up for party activities in record numbers. (In Texas, they did both.) Everywhere, general election poll numbers improved for Democrats, up and down the ticket. Little of this would have happened if the election were settled in February.
Both Clinton and Obama became much better candidates as the campaign went on.
What Went Wrong
Lots of confusion
The delegate selection rules, with separate categories for district delegates, at-large delegates, PLEOs, add-ons and superdelegates, left almost everybody wondering who was really ahead, and by how much. Voters in 2-delegate districts (and sometimes in 4-delegate districts) had little say, since a 1-1 (or 2-2) split was unavoidable, while voters in odd-delegate districts had lots of leverage.
Lots of frustration
Obama was ahead by a small number of delegates for most of the season. It looked like a small lead that Clinton could make up with a few primary wins, but the proportional representation rules means that it was almost impossible for Clinton to catch up. Having her win the Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries and gain few if any delegates was baffling to Clinton supporters, and left many of them with the feeling that the game was rigged.
I'm told that in the public schools, nobody ever finishes the semester with a 69% average. It hurts too much to lose by 1 point, and teachers know it. Either you get a 70 and pass, or you get a 68 and fail. Thanks to our rules, Clinton got a 69.
Too many superdelegates
With superdelegates making up 20% of the Denver convention, they were certain to hold the balance of power. How undemocratic can you get?
Hurry up and wait
We rushed through the February and early March primaries, and then waited through an excruciatingly slow April and May, during which the candidates and their hot-headed supporters trashed each other. A little trash-talking is easy to shrug off, but the longer it went on, the worse it got. We did a lot of damage to ourselves while waiting for Pennsylvania to vote, and even more afterwards.
Florida and Michigan
I'm not going to rehash the question of how many delegates each state should have received, and how they should have been divided, but the decision should never have been put off to May 2008. From the start, there was talk that last year's 100% penalty wouldn't stand up to political pressures, and it didn't. If you're not going to stick with the penalty, don't impose it in the first place. You have to set the rules before the elections are run, so that voters know what they're voting on. A lot of Florida and Michigan voters are going to stay home in November, or vote for McCain, because they feel cheated by the DNC's 50% decision, but nobody is taking the RNC to task for making the exact same decision, because the Republicans did it in advance.
How to Do Better Next Time
Eliminate district voting
There's no reason why a vote in Laredo should count differently from a vote in Austin or Amarillo. Your influence shouldn't depend on whether you reside in an even-delegate or odd-delegate district. Delegates in each state should be alloted by the statewide totals, period. In primary states, that means the statewide vote. In caucus states, that means the delegates' vote at the state convention.
Eliminate separate categories for PLEOs and add-ons
States should be free to reserve some delegate slots for elected officials and special cases, but they should come out of the general pool of pledged delegates already allotted to a candidate and should not affect the total count.
Reduce the number of superdelegates
Let Senators and US Representatives attend the convention as additional pledged delegates, voting for whoever won their states or congressional districts. That would leave only half as many unpledged superdelegates.
Use double-margin proportional representation
In this system, if you won a state 51-49, you'd get 52% of the delegates. If you won 60-40, you'd get 70%. Mathematically, this is easy to implement. Just double all percentages and subtract the same amount from everybody until the total becomes 100%. We could also get rid of viability thresholds, since candidates who collect very few votes would automatically wind up with no delegates. For example, if the vote were 60-30-10, then the delegate distribution would be 80-20-0.
Just as with proportional representation, every vote would count. If wouldn't matter whether your candidate was winning by 20 or losing by 20 -- each extra percent of the vote would still be worth 2% of the delegates. But just as with winner-take-all primaries, there would be decisive results. This system would magnify the results of primaries and caucuses, making it easier to get (or lose) a pledged delegate lead. The superdelegates would matter less, and it would be easier for the loser to accept defeat.
If this system had been in use in 2008, Obama would have a lead of close to 250 pledged delegates, and nobody would be obsessing over the superdelegates.
Use evenly spaced regional primaries
Divide the country into 8-10 regions. Pick a small state from 4 of the regions to go first and winnow the field down -- one small primary or caucus per week in February. Then have one regional primary every week in March and April. Any region that is in the first half would get dropped to the second half the next time, and states that vote in February would be ineligible to do so again for 12 years. Any state that violates the rules should lose all of its superdelegates and half of its pledged delegates, but their election should still count. However, repeat offenders should lose all of their delegates, with no last-minute exceptions.
Since most states do both parties' primaries at the same time, any scheduling changes would have to be done in consultation with the GOP. That's a benefit, since the result can't be used to promote one party over the other.
Allocate delegates to states based strictly on presidential performance
Each state (and DC) should get one regular pledged delegate for every 20,000 votes cast for the previous Democratic presidential nominee. Most territories should get one delegate for every 20,000 votes cast for the previous Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Puerto Rico (which has a different party structure) and Democrats Abroad (who have no governor) would have to be treated separately.