Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Primary Primer

OK, there are several non-Americans who are friends of the blog. Spotted Handfish expressed some understandable confusion about what all the fuss has been about here in the "States" for the last few months. And one might be excused for wondering how it is that Barack Obama just won the majority of delegates generated by 57 state (and territory) elections and still has to win a majority of delegates from another 51 state elections before he's the President.

I'm not an expert on political party development in the US so some may quibble with what I'm about to say but I think this is a more or less reasonable take on how we got where we are. What just happened was that our two national political parties held a series of local elections to determine their nominees for the Presidential election coming up this fall. This was not always the means by which parties did this. It used to be that American parties chose their national candidates through the consensus of their elites. Of course, the US being obsessed with federalism the leaders of the parties from the individual states plaid a big role in this.

But in the 1960s, the race issue split the Democratic party. Southern Democrats refused to allow African-American participation in their state delegations. When the majority of the party leadership stood up for civil rights, these Southern, White Democrats fled for the Republican Party where their attitudes towards race have been tolerated and even exploited. But part of the fight that emerged as this extreme-right wing of the Democratic Party was expelled, involved who would control the nomination of the Presidential candidate - would it be voters or an entrenched party elite that was dominated by older, white Southern politicians. The voters won and the primary system is the result.

Then in the 1970s Watergate and its political fallout, rocked the Republicans. They eventually adopted a similar approach.

In many other democracies, when voters are upset with the dominant parties, they simply set up a new party. This happened in a number of democracies in the late 60s and into the 70s. The Dutch liberal party Democrats 66 emerged in this period. The Belgian political parties split along ethnic lines in the 60s and 70s. In the 1970s, the number of parties represented in the Danish parliament doubled. This kind of thing happened in many democracies. The 70s saw the rise of the German Greens too.

But the US electoral system is very unfriendly to new parties so the best option was to change the way the parties were run. Primaries were part of it. Another part of this was changes in the way the Democratic members of Congress allocated committee chairmanships and leadership positions like party whip and majority leader.

Non Americans may find our system puzzling but it is an important part of how an otherwise rigid two party system can still be accountable to the voters and continue to renew itself from time to time.

18 comments:

The Law Talking Guy said...

It's worth noting that no other western democracy has primary elections of this sort (not that I know of, anyway). Party leadership usually chooses the candidates in parliamentary democracies, and shadow governments stand at the ready for snap elections. However, the idea of a "smoke-filled room" has been the boogey-man of American politics for more than a century. Efforts to democratize the party-leader-selection process have been at the heart of American political reform attempts for a century as well. In Nebraska, they have a unicameral legislature that is theoretically non-partisan. Many states adopted non-partisan elections for offices in the progressive era (early 1900s). Still others have open primaries. In California, for example, a candidate could - and did - run for election in multiple parties. In 1946, Earl Warren won both the Democratic and Republican nominations for governor at primary time, turning the general election into a farce. Today, primaries and caucuses exist to give party members the right to choose candidates without leadership interference. The last vestige of the ancien regime is in the superdelegates, who no longer have any interest in asserting an independent role. It's a very strange thing that in America we run our political parties in this weird bottom-up fashion.

Perhaps this is because the parties only make one choice together: the presidential (and vice presidential) nominees. All other offices - including all federal offices - are chosen at the state level, by state parties. Each of these has its own bizarre mechanisms too. Those outside the country may be surprised to learn that most states had a special election just for the presidential primary, and have a separate primary election for other state and federal offices. So, for example, most Americans will have a chance to vote four times this year: presidential primary, state primary, some municipal election, and a general election day in november. One of the reasons that voter turnout is so much higher in other western democracies than in the United States is that voters there don't go to the polls so often.

I would not be surprised to hear that millions of reasonably well-informed people are confused as to why Obama is not the president of the USA right now. It is not normal in western democracies for a four-month long electoral slog raising hundreds of millions of dollars to be entirely intra-party.

Raised By Republicans said...

Well, the British Labour party used to have something like this for nominatig MP candidates. The local party used to get together in something like a caucus and pick their candidate. The result was local union organizers and youth activists tended to dominate the process. This in turn resulted in a much more radical crop of candidates than Labour fields today. And of course that lead to a series of defeats by an otherwise unpopular Margaret Thatcher.

Tony Blair - among other reforms - pushed for a more centralized candidate selection process that is more easily controled by the party leadership.

By the way, I've already twice this year, 3 times in the last 7 months. In November, we had a city council election, then we had the Caucus in January, then we had a primary last week.

You may be asking, "wait, why do you have a caucus AND a primary?" Well, the Caucus is ONLY for pary offices - delegates to the state convention including delegates that will advocate for who the state party should endorse for the November Presidential election. The primary is for local office (County supervisor, sherrif, our candidate for our House Seat, city auditor, etc).

This brings me to another thing: Not only do Americans vote more often, we vote for many more offices. In the UK you vote for your local council, perhaps a mayor and then you vote for your local MP but that's pretty much it. Americans vote for everything from President on down to City Auditor. In Iowa the secretary of agriculture is directly elected rather than appointed. So are many offices that might be considered part of the Governor's cabinet in other states. We even vote for our local law enforcement officials. Police Commissioners and County Sherrifs are often elected. So are District Attorneys (lead prosecuting attorney for the local government). In many states, people vote for judges.

History Buff said...

And don't forget referendums. I just voted whether or not to keep a local transportation tax to fund fine arts and sports complexes in San Antonio.

USWest said...

Frankly, I don't recall so many elections being held within a given year in the past. Since about 2000 it seems there have many more elections. In California it seems there are special elections twice a year now for various things. And we are asked to vote for things that really belong more to the legislators. But in this state, we have had a governor who tries to end-rund the legislature by "going directly to the people". We have complained multiple times in this blog about the ridicilous number of referendums that appear on California ballots, often sponsored by special interests and oftne contradicting each other.

I work elections. And elections officials in my county bemoan how they never have a down season anymore. There is always an election or referendum being held somewhere.

On thing that comes to mind, and RBR alluded to it, is that in the US we are not entirely trustful of the masses. From the top down, we try to give the masses an opportunity to express an opinion, but then we allow autonomous elites to make the final decision. Thus is life in a republic.

freeridersupermonkey said...

In Germany, parties seem to slowly move to a primary system. For instance, G√ľnther Oettinger, who is now prime minister of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, only got elected after beating one intra-party candidate (Annette Schavan). Interestingly, Oettinger did not have to beat a candidate from another party. This is because prime ministers are elected by parliament; when the previous prime minister resigned the parliament had still two more years to serve, so Oettinger could rely on his party's (CDU/FDP) majority in the actual election.

By the way, the rise of the German Greens took place in the 80's. The party was only founded in 1980. (Sorry to be so anal about this...)

The Law Talking Guy said...

Who votes in the German party system?

freeridersupermonkey said...

In general elections voters elect the members of parliament who in turn elect the prime minister(in state elections) or chancellor(in national elections). In the primary I mentioned above members of the governing party(CDU) voted on the candidate for prime minister (technically he was only candidate then, although de facto it was clear he would win). I think that officially the party elders still chose the candidate, but they committed beforehand that they would respect the vote. This seems to be the way primaries will happen in Germany, but since parties are just starting to hold them, different systems might be used in other instances.

Also, I fully expect the candidates for chancellor next year to be selected by party elders without any primary. It's a long way to go.

Spotted Handfish said...

My understanding is that the big difference between the US system and many others is the direct election of head of state who has real power, as opposed to an appointed head of state which is a ceremonial role with some reserve powers (restart the political process if required). It does not surprise me that there is some direct appointment of the party candidate, but it does surprise me how convoluted the process has become. Is there any move to reform this process?

Dr. Strangelove said...

Talk of reform comes and goes every four years, Spotted Handfish. There will be lots of disgruntled talk during election season. But when the election is over, the winning party has little incentive to change the rules by which it won. That's why we only see reforms within parties, and even then usually only after a major debacle, like the reforms the Democrats instituted after their candidate McGovern lost hugely to Nixon in 1972. (Ironically, these are the same reforms which created "superdelegates" and other changes that helped to make this year's process so agonizing. So reform is not always good, I guess is the lesson.)

This year, actually, there is an interesting situation... Even if he wins in the general election--as we hope he will!--it is still possible that Obama may be interested in reforming the electoral process within the Democratic party because, while he certainly did win, it was also quite difficult. But we shall see. Of course, if he loses in November, that would be precisely the sort of debacle that leads to reforms.

Raised By Republicans said...

Thanks for the catching that mistake on the founding of the Greens. I always think of them as a product of the 70s because of the old pictures of Joscka Fischer in full hippy protester regalia.

But actually, the Greens have a tradition of bottom up candidate selection too I think. They often rotate their candidates imposing a kind of self inflicted term limit on them. They may have moved away from this with the rise of the "realos" within the party though.

The US President is the head of state but he is also the head of government. So although he has the same title as the President of Germany or similar heads of state, his powers are much more in line with the typical Prime Minister.

So we have a head of government who is directly elected separately from the legistive branch. This separation of powers systems is a big reason for how our primary system got set up in the first place.

The Law Talking Guy said...

My question about the German party "primary" was more technical. Who, exactly, is a "party member"? Here in the USA, you can join a party just by saying so. At most you have to check a box on your voter registration form. So an American political party does not have any control over its membership, and each member can vote.

Here's a thought experiment, SH. Imagine if people in a parliamentary system directly elected a president and gave him real presidential power as in the USA. How would parties choose their presidential candidates? Probably the same basic way they do now: by a vote of party insiders. The American system of caucuses and primaries is supposed to be more "open" and "democratic" than all that. You are right to question whether it is indeed either of those things when it is also so complicated.

freeridersupermonkey said...

LTG, it's not that easy to become a party member in Germany. You have to apply for membership; of course in almost all cases you'll be accepted. Exceptions are if you are already member of another party or if you might negatively influence the party's image in public(for instance well-known Nazis). Then you have to pay an annual membership fee which as far as I know will in most cases be sth between 50 and 200 Euros. Theoretically you could move from one party to the next quickly, but it's sufficiently burdensome to keep the numbers of people who do so quite low.

freeridersupermonkey said...

RBR, you are right on both accounts. Certainly the Greens have their roots in the 70's even though the party got founded later. Also they used to have a very strong party base and weak elite. They gradually abandoned this approach though as they become a 'normal' party.

USwest said...

RBR wrote: "So we have a head of government who is directly elected separately from the legistive branch."
Yes, the president is elected seperately from the legislative branch. And in theory the the vice president is also elected seperately from the president. The VP get a seperate line on the ballot, but we all know it is a package deal.

However, I wouldn't use "direct" to describe how we choose the president in the country. We filter it through the Electoral College. While a vote for a candidate is a vote for an elector pledge to that candidate, it isn't direct in the sense that it is in say France where there are no middle men, no voter consolidation in winner-take-all systems.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Yes, RBR probably regrets the word "directly."

Isn't it interesting that our national parties are entirely about choosing the executive branch, though? There isn't even an intra-party process that decides who the legislative leaders will be in US states and the federal government. That is done entirely by the legislators. What I mean is that the DNC (Democratic National Cmte) didn't choose Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to lead the Dems in the Congress - and it certainly wasn't by primary election. They won their roles entirely by vote of Congressional Democrats. And the Congressional Democrats were chosen entirely at the state or local level by primary election, not by state party committees or by the DNC.

History Buff said...

Do you think a popular election for Speaker of the House would make sense?? I think some things need to be left up to the people we elect.

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, as I wrote "directly" I thought, "someone is going to quibble about the electoral college." Fair enough. I meant of course that the President is not elected by the legislative branch. And really, the electoral college doesn't really circumvent voters' authority so much as weight some voters more than others. Until we start seeing electors changing their votes away from that which they were originally expected to cast, I think "directly" is close enough for government work.

I don't think popular election of the legislative leadership would make sense at all. Israel is experimenting with that right now with mixed success. They have a popularly elected PM (the only democracy that has this unique situation). The result is that theoretically, you could have a PM from a party that is not able to build a government. Suppose you had a very popular politician from a very unpopular party. It could result in a legislative train wreck.

In our system. Suppose you had a situation where Nancy Pelosi was leader of the majority party in the House but lost to a Republican in a popular election for Speaker. How would the House function? Either there would be gridlock or the powers of the Speaker would transfer de facto to the majority leader (as they have in the Senate).

The Law Talking Guy said...

What if the DNC decided - whether by caucus, primary, or just committee vote of insiders - which of the Democratic legislators would lead the Democrats in each legislative house? That model is certainly thinkable, and more similar to the parliamentary system. It is interesting that this does not happen.