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."

Friday, July 03, 2009

Lessons from the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries

It has been over a year now since the most expensive and perhaps the closest Democratic primary season in history. Last weekend a Democratic party committee met to consider changes for future contests. So I guess it was on my brain again. As best as I can write it, here are the lessons I would draw from the 2008 campaign.

1. Our view of legitimacy has definitely changed. A century ago it was considered perfectly legitimate for the delegates to the quadrennial convention to select the party's nominee. That authority has now passed entirely to the voters. To be considered legitimate, the party's nominee must be chosen in a fair contest by the voters alone. Anything else will damage the party and the nominee.

2. Our view of what constitutes a fair contest is refreshingly flexible. We are comfortable with primaries, caucuses, and hybrids--and these contests may be open or closed. We are comfortable having different systems in different states. The polls may be open for different hours, or on different days, and the states may vote at any time in any order. The state delegation may be winner-take-all, or proportional to the statewide vote, or to the county-wide vote, or anywhere in between. We accept formulas for state representation at the national level that are not necessarily proportional to state population or state party membership.

3. Nevertheless, three attributes are essential to a fair and legitimate contest: the election rules must be fixed reasonably well beforehand, the formulas for allocating delegates must provide for reasonably equal representation for all voters across all states, and the entire system must be implemented in an effective and transparent manner. For example, it is sensible to postpone an election due to inclement weather, but the rules for doing so must be understood in advance, the rescheduling process must be handled in the open, and there must be adequate funding and personnel to handle the changes.

4. I use the word "reasonably" because we all understand the need for a little wiggle room here and there, but the litmus test for any election rule is very simple: If the election ultimately comes down to that rule, would the American public consider the outcome fair? Two much-discussed aspects of the current Democratic primary process fail this simple litmus test: (a) Superdelegates, uncommitted delegates, unpledged delgates, etc.; and (b) reducing, eliminating, or augmenting a state's voting rights as a punishment or reward. If Hillary had won because the superdelegates all lined up behind her to overrule the pledged delegates, or if Obama had won solely because Florida's delegates were disqualified, that would have been a nightmare.

5. To the extent that the rules for a contest are considered fair and clear, that contest may be very close but still satisfyingly decisive. Michael Phelps can legitimately win a gold medal by a millisecond because the rules are exceptionally fair and clear in his sport. Likewise, Obama may not have won hands-down but he unquestionably came in first. The rules were just barely good enough to avoid a Florida 2000 or Minnesota 2008 situation. The big lesson is this: we need to improve the rules so the outcome will remain clear even when the race is much closer. Because someday it will be... And given how close elections are getting to be these days, that "someday" may be sooner than we think.


Raised By Republicans said...

Those all seem sensible Dr. S. I wold add a corollary to your point 3 ... let's call it 3a:

Party leaders should resist the temptation to taylor the rules (including the order of which states go when) to favor some presumptive nominee - even if that presumptive nominee is very popular or widely regarded as a strong candidate.

I add this because this is precisely what the DNC tried to do for Hillary Clinton. The original deal on order of states was set up by close Clinton associates who had been given top positions in the DNC. It was ultimately unsuccessful but the 2008 Primary rules and order were largely driven by people who wanted those rules to favor Clinton.

It's a bad idea to do this for two reasons. First, what favors the desired candidate may change over time (as it did with Clinton who first wanted to prevent Florida and Michigan from going early then switched positions). So this kind of attempt to bias the rules will have less that great chances of succeeding. And if it did succeed, it would undermine the legitimacy of the rules themselves. Second, the party leaders may be a poor judge of who is really the best nominee so far in advance. Conditions can change suddenly that can make a candidate look better that used to be out of favor.

I'd also add that "refreshing flexibility" is a very good thing. Different local rules emphasize the importance of different kinds of voters. The flexibility lets the candidates see in some detail where their strengths and weaknesses are. It makes them better candidates in the general.

Dr. Strangelove said...

You know, originally I had "four attributes" and included the rules being neutral as regards the candidates... Which is pretty close to what you wrote. In principle I think that is important and I agree with you 100% on that. But in the end I eliminated that from point 3--even though again I personally think it is important--because that was not a lesson I drew from the 2008 Primary season. In fact, I sort of drew the opposite lesson.

Because despite the rules jockeying you mention that favored Clinton in some respects, there really was not a big to-do about that in the national press. The whole discussion of effects and processes was a little too much "in the weeds" for most people. And the general scheme of things--Iowa and NH first, with a big Super Tuesday later--was very familiar. Instead, most of the focus was on those individual states that piled up on Super Tuesday and tried to leapfrog one another for their own selfish purposes. Unlike the FL/MI, and superdelegate issues, the tailoring of the rules was more subtle and a bit more debatable. (In fact, we debated that on this blog, as I recall.)

So while I think your corollary is important--and perhaps will become substantially more important in future contests once the bigger issues are resolved--I think the American public was not particularly convinced by or disturbed by any of that in the 2008 race. For example, if Hillary had won big enough on Super Tuesday to clinch the nomination, I seriously doubt the legitimacy of that win would have been questioned in any serious way. Certainly not to the extent that a "superdelegate coup" would have undermined her.

Dr. Strangelove said...

And yes... To my surprise, I came to appreciate the local rules. Watching some of the Iowa caucuses on C-SPAN helped. That was pretty cool. Made me wish I could do that sometime!

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, the Iowa Causus is special - and being first is part of that speciallness. It really lasts for months with national candidates (and/or their senior staff) meeting with regular Iowans in small groups (in living rooms etc). I got to meet the state campaign directors for the Obama and Edwards campaigns. I saw Edwards and Richardson in venues no bigger than our favorite Irish pub (to remain nameless). I saw all the major Democratic candidates in live events at least once. That is a completely different experience than one gets from living in a Super Tuesday state or even a big state having a primary all by itself on one day.

If Iowa had the same format but it took place a week after Super Tuesday, there would be a lot less of the intense, small group campaigning that we see now.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Legitimacy is indeed a very complicated concept. We can't lose sight of the fact that it is not enough to win according to the rules, the "public" must believe it to be "fair" and "right." How the public, which is not a person, determines or believes anything is a very slippery concept. Not to mention fairness. This has a lot to do with how the public debate gets framed around the issues. Hillary Clinton got out of the gate too slow and lost the public battle for superdelegates. That was not a foregone conclusion. She could have said from the earliest days that the contest was about winning over the party faithful, and made it seem like an Oscar contest rather than the People's Choice Awards. But it would be impossible to pursue both that strategy and the Big State popular vote strategy at the same time. It was galling to her, no doubt, that Obama could win through non-representative caucuses and yet she could not win through non-representative superdelegates. But by participating in Iowa, she legitimized it. She would have had to try to delegitimize caucuses from the outset (not halfway through as she finally tried to).

Just so, Al Gore could have insisted that the Electoral College must never stand in the way of the popular vote, an attitude that could have prevailed if it brought a million people into the streets. It can happen here just as in Iran, and easier. Instead all we had was the lousy Brooks Brothers riot in Broward county and the GOP won all those battles for legitimacy in the public eye. Gore hoped to win by lawyers and law alone. Total flop.

I don't think there's any magic to democratic rules. The trick is to have a set of rules that the public believes is fair. And you have to sell it right from the beginning.