Primary Obligations: Why the Democrats Should Fix the Nominating System

Primary Obligations: Why the Democrats Should Fix the Nominating System

Supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for all their differences, have in the course of this emotional primary season come to view the Democratic Party’s nominating process as seriously flawed. To be sure, Obama’s enthusiasts would seem to have little reason to complain, while Clinton’s own errors, tactical and strategic, wounded her at least as much as any kinks in the system. Yet, it became apparent this past spring that in such a tight race, with the candidates effectively tied, various procedural injustices that might otherwise be waved off—the length of the season, the (theoretical) king-making power of the superdelegates, the decisive influence of caucuses and open primaries, the effective disfranchisement of two elector-rich swing states—influenced and perhaps altered the race’s outcome. Even if the candidates muster the obligatory shows of unity this summer, at this writing (May) it seems that the party will have to address the procedural pitfalls exposed this year.

Yet any reassessment will fail if reformers once again act like generals fighting the last war. After the fiasco of 1968, the Democrats, led by George McGovern, awarded activists and key interest groups much more power—turning the party into congeries of activists and constituent groups led by George McGovern. When in 1972 McGovern held up to America a picture of the party that failed to reflect its breadth and moderation, he ensured his defeat. His rout in turn engendered James Hunt’s 1982 commission that created the system of party-chosen superdelegates—party regulars whose convention votes could keep radicals or mischief-makers from hijacking the party’s choice. But this reform met criticism as early as 1984, when the supers helped Walter Mondale repulse Gary Hart’s primary challenge.

The current dissatisfaction stems largely from the extraordinary closeness of this year’s race. As the Florida recount fight of 2000 showed, in a virtual tie, both sides will scour the selection mechanisms to glean the meagerest advantage—or to explain away defeat. Plainly, a slightly different system could have produced a different winner. The economist Kenneth Arrow once proved that different ways of choosing among candidates, each of which meets objective criteria of fairness, can nonetheless yield divergent results. No single, fairest set of election rules can exist.

Any system, then, will suffer accusations of unfairness. Before 2008, pundits harrumphed that conventions had become empty, stage-managed coronations. This year they warned of the looming disaster of an open convention. Before 2008, they bemoaned the pride of place that the parties meekly handed over to Iowa and New Hampshire. This year, those states’ primacy drew little comment, because Clinton and Obama won one apiece. For all these reasons, any conversation about reform should focus not on onetime flukes requiring mechanistic fixes but on underlying proble...