DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

Month: October, 2018

The Democrats’ Dilemma

Although the crucial mid-term elections are a mere two weeks away, it never takes long before most political conversations turn to the question of the 2020 Democratic nominee. So while the outcome of 2018’s contests is still very much up in the air, let’s focus on an election still two years away.

Well, of course, 2020 is not two years away, except on the calendar. It is two weeks away, because as soon as the 2018 results are known (and they may not be on November 6th because of close contests and run-offs), every pundit will scrutinize the tea leaves to assess whose White House aspirations were helped or hindered by the mid-terms.

Many people seem distressed that there is no obvious Democratic frontrunner and seem worried that such uncertainty dictates that the nominee in 2020 will be unable to pull the party together. Such unity will be needed to defeat the almost inevitable Republican nominee, Donald Trump (unless he has become tired of winning all the time and decides to retire). My two-word answer to those worries: Barack Obama. In the era of social media and cable TV, the most unknown personality can be catapulted into notoriety in a matter of days regardless of credibility or worthiness. Think: Michael Avenatti.  Yes, there will be a scrum of candidates, but it will be whittled down pretty quickly to a few credible (if not predictable) survivors.

This situation is far preferable to having a well-known, easily identified party leader who appears to be the inevitable nominee..  Such a person would certainly be the target of years of unrelenting criticism, second-guessing, background investigations, examination of years of voting records (if a legislator) and media undercutting. She or he might be the “front runner,” but would emerge badly scarred and weakened. Moreover, a spirited contest for the nomination is good training and tends to allow more talented and strategic candidates to emerge while weeding out those whose famous name or inevitability provided them temporary frontrunner status. (Admittedly, the process is not foolproof. Think: oh, never mind.)

But the caucus and primary process for selecting the eventual nominee can be very problematic in 2020.  It favors someone popular with the activist base that is over-represented in the nomination selection process. Almost invariably, that process selects someone on the left side of the Democrats’ ideological spectrum (although as the Clinton-Sanders race showed, not necessarily on the extreme left). In preparation for just such a battle, many of the prospective candidates are already lining up to support policies that appeal to the microcosm of voters who will select the nominee: Medicare for All, free college tuition, a reconstituted ICE and an immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship, a massive jobs program, subsidized student loans, as well as other meritorious policies that are vulnerable to the easiest Republican attacks of irresponsibility on spending, big government and deficit creation that spells tax increases. Leftist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been notably vague on how to pay the multi-trillion dollar cost of these initiatives. That silence may work in safe Democratic congressional districts, but it will not cut it on the presidential stage.

Defeating Donald Trump in 2020 is going to depend on Democrats meeting some very basic strategic objectives:

  • don’t alienate independents and disenchanted Republicans who might be willing to entrust Democrats to reverse course on some of the dangerous wackiness of the last two years;
  • figure out how to win back some of the white, blue collar vote that swung from Obama’s “change” message to Trump’s “revenge” appeal;
  • at the same time, motivate the progressive youth and minority vote whose participation is crucial for both 2018 and 2020.

Unfortunately, these objectives may be contradictory – youth voters and alienated blue collar Democrats might have a hard time reconciling. It doesn’t take many of them to walk away from the party to cost Democrats crucial states and the 2020 election, as we all painfully know.

Selecting a nominee who has a broad appeal beyond the base will be the Democratic challenge, and it may become more difficult due to changes in the selection procedure. In the troublesome Mid-West this year, several mainstream Democrats defeated more liberal challengers in gubernatorial primaries; since those are states any Democratic nominee must win in 2020, it will be instructive to watch the outcome of the midterm races in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

The DNC’s decision to pare down the influence of super-delegates at the 2020 convention in order to eliminate checks on the popular will was, in my view, a bad idea. Professionals who understand how to win elections, not just excite crowds, should be engaged in the strategic decision of picking a nominee if it appears the caucus/primary process has gone off the rails. And with Democrats, it just might. Super-delegates should not thwart the public will as expressed in caucuses and primaries, but their engagement in the process cautions potential nominees to heed party as well as personal best interests.

California’s decision to move its primary from June to the beginning of March will benefit candidates who have appeal to the more liberal end of the spectrum, which includes a few California possibilities like Kamala Harris and Eric Garcetti. But California is a reliably Democratic state regardless of the nominee, unlike Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to pick a few states arbitrarily. One rationale for beginning the nominating process in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire is to allow unknowns a chance to show their stuff, win an early contest, and thereby compete in raising funds needed to compete in costlier states. It will be difficult for lesser-known candidates to raise the money needed in California so early in the process, which may well sink their chances before they get out of the starting gate.

So the real challenge facing Democrats for 2020 is not whether there will be a nominee, but whether the process created for selecting that nominee is capable of selecting someone with the breadth of appeal needed to compete against a wily demagogue. We will begin to be able to answer that question on November 7.

 

 

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Picking Less Partisan Candidates

September is over, and with it summer, Labor Day, the celebration of National Potato Month … and the 2018 primary election season. Just two months before the November election that could decide the nation’s political course for the next two years, candidates have finally been selected in a process that began in some states all the way back in March!

This is, therefore, a good time to ask: are primaries, and in some cases, conventions, really the best way to select our candidates for public office? Or like many other kinds of reform, does voter involvement contribute to the very partisan atmosphere that many voters – although not necessarily those participating in candidate selection —  decry, promoting non-participation in the political process?

Instinctively, most people endorse the idea of voters picking their party’s candidate. The previous method, party selection, was often portrayed as occurring in the “smoke-filled back room” of some creaky party headquarters by some non-representative boss and his stooges. Progressive reformers in the early 1900s promoted the primary, like the referendum, initiative and recall, as modernizations that would take power away from presumably corrupt politicians – party leaders and legislatures – and instead empower the voters to choose candidates, permit direct voter decision-making on policies, and remove officeholders without waiting for an election.

The problem with primaries, especially in a more partisan era where voters have pretty much sorted themselves ideologically into the two major parties, is that the so-called reform has become a major contributor to the problem that discourages moderate voters from participating in politics: partisanship.

Better informed and more highly motivated people are more likely to vote than their less informed and less motivated counterparts. In a general election, the rate of participation varies from around 40% in most off-years (like 2018) to 60% in a presidential election year. So right off the bat, a substantial percentage of voters – disproportionately the less ideologically rigid – opt out of influencing selection of public officials. Moreover, there is a significant drop-off rate for down-ballot candidates, so even those who do come out to vote for president, for example, lose interest while in the voting booth (or wherever they vote) by the time they get to, say, city council or school board.

But these are impressive turn-out rates when compared to primaries. A new study by the Bipartisan Policy Center has just found that while participation in the 2018 primaries for federal office increased from the level four years ago to 46 million from 32 million, the percent of eligible voters participating rose only to 19.9% from a miserable 14.3% in 2014. (Both Democratic and Republican participation increased.) Combine this paltry turnout with the fact that only 8 states have run-offs that ensure that the party nominee has received a majority of votes, and the result is that those appearing on the fall ballot as nominees have invariably been chosen by a fraction of the eligible voters in their districts or states, and that fraction, almost without exception, tends to be more ideologically extreme than voters overall.

Politicians know who elects them, and it should come as little surprise that most, in most cases, they will appeal to that select sliver of voters whom they must satisfy. This behavior is true not only at election time, but when deciding how to cast votes in committee and on the floor, or when urging party leaders not to bring issues before the Congress at all.

It is difficult, of course, to argue for a less participatory mechanism for selecting candidates, although there is a healthy discussion underway about whether the political system might not function more effectively were there less transparency. Consider Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania last year; he won a traditionally Republican district because he veered away from the Democratic party’s position on a host of issues, enhancing his appeal to general election voters. Had the nominee been selected in a primary dominated by party activists instead of by the local organization, Lamb might well have been defeated by a more liberal rival who would have lost the special election.

A more salable strategy than arguing for a return to the smoke-filled back room might be to find ways to expand participation in primaries so that a more diverse cohort of voters selects candidates. I, for one, am no fan of open primaries where non-party registrants are given the ability to intrude into the choice of nominees; at a minimum, those selecting the candidate should demonstrate sufficient fealty to the party to register as members before assuming that power.

Boosting primary (or even general election) participation is tricky, but there are several fairly easy ways to reform primaries to produce candidates who reflect a broader swath of voter sentiment.

  • First, the no-brainer: get rid of the restrictive voting rules used to purge, intimidate and discourage voter (and especially minority voter) participation.
  • Expand opportunities for voting by mail and early voting rather than limiting voting to a single day.
  • Consolidate primaries so there is greater awareness of “Primary Day” as there is “Election Day.” Instead of stringing the process out from March to September, pick a day for national primaries that makes sense – I would argue for immediately after Labor Day so nominees are chosen based on issues as they exist in proximity to the general election, but some may argue that doesn’t leave enough time for lesser known nominees to challenge incumbents.
  • Lastly, provide for either tiered or ranked choice voting, or for runoffs, so that nominees must appeal more widely for votes to diminish the incentive to reflect only partisan and extreme positions.

It will be difficult to implement such reforms since, of course, the exisiting system works well for those currently in office, who have minimal incentive to experiment with innovation. Still, a vigorous pubic discussion about how we select candidates can help promote the changes we need to produce officeholders who embrace collaboration rather than confrontation as a way to seek office and serve voters.