Party delegates will dictate primary result

Reformers should re-examine their assumptions about the effect of frontloading on the process.

Asked earlier in the day if he was going to New York to make a statement about the state, John McCain referenced a prolific U.S. bank robber and told reporters, “No. It’s the Willie Sutton syndrome. When they asked him why he robbed banks he said it’s because that’s where the money is.” On Jan. 22, polls showed McCain tied with Rudy Giuliani among New York Republicans and leading all other candidates in head-to-head nationwide polls against Hillary Clinton, the other New Yorker and presumed Democratic nominee. McCain earned $1 in the course of the day as he overtook Giuliani and buried the New Yorker’s controversial but widely-known “29-inning strategy.” More importantly, Giuliani’s spectacular failing on Super Tuesday, and Clinton’s less-than-dominant performance, evidenced the fault of key assumptions held by groups like The Century Foundation and fairvote.org who seek to change the nomination process in 2012.

Frontloading, defined as the creeping of states to earlier positions on the campaign trail, is an ongoing phenomenon. Most advocates for primary reform precede from the belief that frontloading discriminates against candidates with low name recognition and those out of favor with the moneyed elite. They point to the rapid demise of Howard Dean following a minor slip-up in 2004. Had there been more breathing room for Dean to recover before the Iowa caucus, they argue, his opponent’s slide into warp speed might not have been so inevitable.

By comparison, advocates hark back all the way to the 1968 campaign, where upstart Eugene McCarthy ran a sitting president off the campaign trail following the March 8 New Hampshire primary. With Lyndon Johnson out of the race, Robert Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey challenged. In a year renowned for left wing activism, protests and national sorrow, a multicandidate Democratic Party primary fits amply into reformers’ recollections of American democracy at its most vital moment.

And so, as the loom of Super Tuesday combined with the dramatic year over election year spending increases in Iowa and New Hampshire to threaten hopes for a similarly enthralling primary in 2008, advocates at FairVote prematurely began planning ways to reform the process for 2012. Underlying the effort was and is a state-centric focus on positioning delegates on the campaign trail evenly and over an extended timeline in order to play the game a full 4 quarters. It is a grand distortion of our democracy, they argue, to allow a few early states to so decisively determine the eventual nominee. “The Delaware Plan” or the “American Plan” are proposals designed to give states in the late goings a greater voice. In fact, historically most candidates are decided upon well before national convention. But efforts to recapture the moment of national attention so intensely felt in 1968 are misguided. Instead, reformers should focus on undoing the work of the 1980 convention which amplified the role of embedded party interests at the expense of caucus-goers and activists. As in 1968, there is an immediate threat in 2008 to hopes for a fair and democratic nomination process from the parties themselves, not the states. Specifically, in the Democrats’ case, it is the DNC’s mandate of reserving a number of unpledged delegates, or “superdelegates” for party elders.

While many reformers recall a competitive race in 1968, the reality was somewhat different. The eventual winner, Hubert Humphrey, did not win a single primary. Instead, while anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy competed over delegates in all 13 primary states, Humphrey courted party leadership – old guards each owning a vote at convention, and accountable to no one. Humphrey was their favorite, and so they handed him victory at convention despite Humphrey receiving just 2.2 percent of the popular vote.

However, besides its embarrassingly unfair choice, the 1968 Convention passed measures (in an effort led by supporters of McCarthy and Kennedy) to reform the nomination process – reforms only to be undone at the 1980 Convention. Today, there remains a stipulation in the Democratic Party charter (Article 3, Sections 2 and 3) to privilege party officers and elected representatives. While the rest of us vote for delegates who must adhere to rules of proportional representation, superdelegates are bound by no such rules. Superdelegates are unelected, and they make up 19.5 percent of this year’s total delegation – a commanding influence that historically favors establishment candidates. Thus, before signing off on federal legislation that hastily usurps from state legislatures control over their elections, a more prudent fix would begin at this year’s convention in Denver. Party delegates can lead a similar charge as was led in 1968, and resolve to amend the charter. Superdelegates need to go.

Indeed, with more resurgent candidates in 2008 than any primary in recent memory, FairVote reformers should reexamine their assumptions about the effect of frontloading on the process. Two of the three best earners in the 4th quarter of 2007, for example, were Ron Paul and Barack Obama – grassroots candidates. By contrast, big namers McCain and Edwards opted in desperation for $5.8 and $8.8 million respectively of public matching funds after going for broke – and losing – in Iowa. Last month the Clinton’s “invested” $5 million in themselves and still failed to outraise or outperform Obama before Super Tuesday. Meanwhile pending primaries in Texas, Virginia and Ohio wait on deck as potential deal-sealers in the race’s late innings.

Groups like FairVote and Fix The Primaries who predicted certain doom for 2008 have been proven wrong. Their efforts to reform the process are well-meaning but off-the-mark. 2008 has already proven to be another exceptional primary. Inspired supporters have driven a number of grassroots campaigns to potential, and others wage on. Record turnouts prove again that in the end it is still the votes, and thus, delegates, that matter. Therefore, party delegates must assert their primacy and act at convention this August to prevent the misguided efforts of FairVote and Fix The Primaries from changing the 2012 process.

Alex Essington welcomes comments at [email protected]