Fault line between par­ties, vot­ers

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus

— Don­ald Trump claims the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­mary sys­tem is “cor­rupt” and “rigged” against him. If any­thing, the op­po­site is true: The party’s rules have largely op­er­ated in Trump’s fa­vor. Wit­ness the fact that, go­ing into Tues­day’s pri­maries, Trump had won just 38 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote but 47 per­cent of the del­e­gates awarded so far.

Still, Trump’s grip­ing seems to have res­onated even be­yond his own sup­port­ers. The dis­pute highlights the fric­tion between the par­ties’ in­sti­tu­tional in­ter­ests in self-preser­va­tion and vot­ers’ con­vic­tions that they run the show. This in­her­ent ten­sion tends to be sub­merged in less con­tentious elec­tion years, when those com­pet­ing im­per­a­tives can both be ac­com­mo­dated.

Trump has “dis­cov­ered what a lot of Amer­i­cans have dis­cov­ered, which is that the nom­i­na­tion of a pres­i­dent is not a public process,” the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Elaine Ka­marck told me. “It’s a party process that the par­ties in modern times have al­lowed the public to par­tic­i­pate in.”

Un­til the 1970s, nom­i­nees were mostly cho­sen by party reg­u­lars (more loaded word, bosses). In the early 20th cen­tury, some states in­sti­tuted pri­maries at the urg­ing of pro­gres­sive re­form­ers. “Let The Peo­ple Rule” was Theodore Roo­sevelt’s catch­phrase in his come­back bid at the 1912 GOP con­ven­tion, as Geoffrey Cowan re­lates in his new book with that ti­tle.

But these con­tests re­mained barely rel­e­vant, ex­cept for up­start can­di­dates seek­ing to demon­strate ap­peal. In the 1952 Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion con­test, as Ka­marck re­counts in “Pri­mary Pol­i­tics,” Estes Ke­fau­ver won 12 of 15 pri­maries and 3 mil­lion votes, com­pared to 78,000 for his chief ri­val, Ad­lai Steven­son, who hadn’t even run. Steven­son won on the third bal­lot.

Things changed — for both par­ties — af­ter the ran­corous 1968 cam­paign, when Democrats Eu­gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy won the vast ma­jor­ity of pri­mary votes but Hu­bert Humphrey, who did not com­pete in the pri­mary, se­cured a first-bal­lot nom­i­na­tion. A post-elec­tion Demo­cratic com­mis­sion ush­ered in a new era for both par­ties in which, Ka­marck wrote, “mass per­sua­sion re­placed elite per­sua­sion.”

Yet that sys­tem en­tails choos­ing rules, which in turn em­body choices about how much power the party should cede to vot­ers:

— Should a ma­jor­ity be re­quired? Ac­tu­ally, a party look­ing for an ac­cept­able gen­eral elec­tion can­di­date could ra­tio­nally re­quire a su­per-ma­jor­ity. Democrats once had a twothirds rule — although that can pro­duce chaos, as when the 1924 con­ven­tion re­quired 103 bal­lots over 16 days.

— Should the pri­mary be open, giv­ing voice to in­de­pen­dent vot­ers whose views will mat­ter in Novem­ber, or should it be closed, bet­ter re­flect­ing the pref­er­ence of com­mit­ted par­ti­sans?

— Should del­e­gates be cho­sen, as Democrats man­date, by pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which em­pow­ers longer-shot can­di­dates and risks a more drawn-out con­test, or by some form of win­ner-take-all al­lo­ca­tion, as Repub­li­cans al­low states to choose in later con­tests?

— Is there a role for su­perdel­e­gates, party lead­ers and elected of­fi­cials to me­di­ate the pop­u­lar choice? Democrats created su­perdel­e­gates in the af­ter­math of the 1972 Ge­orge McGovern de­ba­cle and 1976 elec­tion of out­sider Jimmy Carter.

— Should del­e­gates be re­quired to vote for the can­di­date that vot­ers in their state backed, and, if so, through how many bal­lots? Repub­li­can Party rules bind most del­e­gates on the first bal­lot. Democrats’ rules — fol­low­ing Ted Kennedy’s un­suc­cess­ful bid to free del­e­gates com­mit­ted to in­cum­bent Jimmy Carter in 1980 — are slightly looser, re­quir­ing del­e­gates to “in good con­science re­flect the sen­ti­ments of those who elected them.”

Iron­i­cally, the Repub­li­can party’s ap­proach — win­ner-take-all states; no su­perdel­e­gates; bind­ing first-bal­lot votes — works in Trump’s fa­vor, not­with­stand­ing his belly­ach­ing.

Will the legacy of 2016 be to fur­ther em­power vot­ers — or the GOP re­assert­ing con­trol to pre­vent fu­ture Trumps? Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Marty Cohen, co-author of “The Party De­cides,” said Repub­li­cans would do bet­ter to nom­i­nate Trump — and use the en­su­ing dis­as­ter to tighten con­trol.

“They can say this is what hap­pens when the vot­ers are left to their own de­vices ... and make sure it doesn’t hap­pen again,” Cohen said.

Maybe, although the party might be wary of fur­ther in­flam­ing grass-roots vot­ers, and the his­tory of rules changes sug­gests the like­li­hood of un­in­tended con­se­quences — as with the GOP’s move this year to shorten the pe­riod dur­ing which it re­quired that del­e­gates be awarded pro­por­tion­ately. The in­tent was to pro­duce a nom­i­nee faster, but the tweak ended up fu­el­ing Trump.

In the mean­time, don’t be fooled. Trump’s real gripe isn’t with the rules. It’s with him­self, and how badly pre­pared he was to ex­ploit them.

Ruth Mar­cus is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com.


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