Democratic Donkey by DonkeyHotey, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/Original
Following all that nasty business in Iowa a couple of weeks ago, Marquette University political science professor Julia Azari has found a solution: “It’s time to give the elites a bigger say in choosing the president.”
Azari penned an op-ed in The Washington Post to show us a “better” way to conduct our presidential primaries, although she admits it will “require swimming against the tide of how we’ve thought about nominations for decades.” She writes that “better primary system would empower elites to bargain and make decisions, instructed by voters.”
This is a far cry from swimming against the tide: it is essentially a power grab.
Azari writes that our current system, with its “long informal primary and its attention to early contests” tests the candidates’ skill and stamina. “What it’s not great at is choosing among the many candidates who clear that bar, or bringing their different ideological factions together, or reconciling competing priorities.” What we really need is:
A process in which intermediate representatives — elected delegates who understand the priorities of their constituents — can bargain without being bound to specific candidates might actually produce nominees that better reflect what voters want.
But the kinds of processes that we associate with more open and high-quality democracy may not actually help parties produce nominees that really reflect the party’s overall concerns. Democracy thrives on uncertainty — outcomes that are not known at the beginning of the process. But uncertainty doesn’t help parties strategize for the general election.
She then describes how complicated it’s all become and how “it’s opened the door to too much uncertainty — and to divisive nominees such as George McGovern in 1972 and to Donald Trump, lacking in conventional qualifications and appreciation for democratic norms.”
Azari points to McGovern and Trump as proof that nominations shouldn’t be too democratic. (Emphasis mine)
For decades, the conversation about nominations has been about the conflicts between party elites and everyone else. Today, that conversation is counterproductive. A better approach is to think about how voters and elites could best play their different roles: to make their political parties more representative while ultimately narrowing the nomination choice down to one person. And the best way to do that would be through preference primaries.
Preference primaries could allow voters to rank their choices among candidates, as well as to register opinions about their issue priorities — like an exit poll, but more formal and with all the voters. The results would be public but not binding; a way to inform elites about voter preferences.
This process could accompany a primary of the sort we’re used to — in which voters’ first choices instruct the delegates, and preferences come into play only if there’s no clear winner. The primaries could also be held in combination with elections for convention delegates so that these representatives are informed by their constituents’ preferences. This would also help voters hold these delegates accountable in the future. The point is to build a way for party elites to understand what their base is thinking, and to allow them to bargain so that these different preferences and priorities can be balanced.
This might sound labor-intensive and a little risky, but the process is already lengthy and expensive. Candidates jockey for endorsements and donations for months leading up to the first contests. Why not invest some resources in finding out what voters really think, and then allow party delegates to figure out how those opinions can translate into a winning ticket?
This is a horrifying idea. Even for The Washington Post, this is radical. Surprisingly, most of their readers disagreed with Azari’s proposal.
Very few, if any, Americans would choose to surrender their right to vote to a group of unelected “elites.” I kind of like our democratic republic, thank you.
Who, exactly, would Azari consider to be a “party elites?” Large donors? Leaders of the DNC? People like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Donna Brazile or Tom Perez? The best and the brightest the Party has to offer.
Why would Azari propose such an idea now?
For starters, this scheme would make it easier for them to prevent Bernie Sanders from becoming the nominee.
Additionally, many pundits, doubting that any candidate will accumulate the required 1,991 delegates to clinch the nomination, have raised the possibility of a brokered convention. Political statistician, Nate Silver, projects that the delegate count per candidate through Super Tuesday will be as follows:
Sanders 608 (41% of delegates thru March 3)
Bloomberg 273 (18%)
Biden 270 (18%)
Buttigieg 157 (10%)
Warren 127 (8%)
Klobuchar 55 (4%)
Azari’s plan would result in a smaller number of candidates sharing the delegates, making it easier for one to reach the required threshold.
The Democratic Party elites have been trying to take away our freedoms for years. We don’t have to help them.