Fixing the disastrous nomination process
© Greg Nash

“California came here to nominate a President of the United States. She did not come here to deadlock this convention or to engage in another disastrous contest like that of 1924.” William McAdoo, swinging the Democratic Convention in 1932 to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Every four years we find out the same fact -- The presidential nominating system has been a long running disaster. Ever since the previous system began its collapse following the 1968 conventions, the two parties have failed to develop a way that makes the process run smoothly with as much certainty in the candidate as possible and also allows the nominee the best launching pad to a November victory. It’s time for the two parties to consider changes that go beyond band-aids.

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The failures of the nominating system come partly from a philosophical divide between what the general public theoretically wants from the nominating system and what the parties want. As William McAdoo, noted the conventions are run with the goal of nominating a candidate who will go on to win in November. Whether that candidate has the support of a majority of the party’s members before the nomination is irrelevant to the party leaders, except for how it plays in November.

Voters have a very different take. They want to choose the candidate and that should be the person who gets the majority of the vote. This is an old American ideal – in 1824, John Quincy Adams was pilloried for not winning a popular or Electoral College majority and his maneuver to gain the presidency was seen as a “corrupt bargain.” Arguably the main reason that the attempt to dethrone Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Will Mueller play hardball with Trump? Mexican presidential candidate vows to fire back at Trump's 'offensive' tweets Elizabeth Warren urges grads to fight for 'what is decent' in current political climate MORE on the convention floor failed was concern of the blowback from nominating an also-ran in contravention to the will of the people.

The problem here is two-fold. One is what happens when the people elect a candidate who is certain to lose a general election. The other is what happens when the rules make it unclear who actually won.

The first part is a problem that cannot be solved. There is a belief that the general populace does not do a good job, and this may well true -- both current presidential candidates come into the race with very heavy negatives. But a look back at U.S. history shows that the conventions frequently chose unpopular and unappealing candidates. It’s not at all clear that professional politicians do any better job in selecting nominees.

The other part is a much bigger issue. The impact of the rules being unclear seems to be a continual problem, one that candidates use as a last second hope to gain the nomination. This year, Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSunday shows preview: Lawmakers weigh in after Texas school shooting Voters Dems need aren't impressed by anti-waterboarding showboating Primary win gives resurgent left a new shot of adrenaline MORE supporters were complaining about how Sanders was being cheated out of the nomination after he overwhelmingly won a string of caucuses. But Sanders never led in the popular vote. The vote totals in the caucuses are very misleading, primarily because caucuses are a very poor way of voting for candidates. The result for the party is a group of very embittered supporters. Similarly, in 2008, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump Jr. met with Gulf adviser who offered help to win election: report Voters Dems need aren't impressed by anti-waterboarding showboating After year of investigation, Trump can rightly claim some vindication MORE’s supporters were upset when Michigan’s and Florida’s votes were tossed out due to a requirement that they hold their votes a set time after Iowa and New Hampshire. The result was confusion and a potential challenge – though Clinton’s forces backed down quickly.

Caucuses also further muddy the picture for a clear winner, as they are not a straightforward vote. They are instead a complex vote that is skewed to highly organized political groups, resulting in an ability for less popular candidates to gain a big majority in them despite a possible poor total voter showing. Sometimes, the actual winner is reported to have lost on Election Day. Frequently enough, candidates who do well in caucuses may do much worse when faced with a full group of voters. We saw this both for Sanders and for Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTen dead after shooting at Texas high school Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers For cable commentators, the 2016 GOP primary never ended MORE in 2016.

The answer here is a fairly simple one – pressure states to get rid of caucuses. This isn’t hard. Very few voters will not select a more democratic system. Witness the success of recall laws. New Jersey voted for one in 1993 – almost 75% of the voters supported the law. Minnesota saw almost 90% of voters choose to adopt a recall in 1996. Primaries are clearly more democratic than caucuses. This is an easy win.

A bigger “optics” issue is the Superdelegate problem. In the Democratic Party, party officials and U.S. senators, congressmen and governors all have an automatic vote at the convention. This group presents a potential blocking majority against an unpopular choice. This is the second election that the Democrats have come under fire for potentially having this team of unelected delegates decide the nomination. To a lesser degree, the Republicans have some similar delegates who can theoretically swing the vote. While Superdelegates seem like a very poor choice, they may actually serve a different role. A split convention is a real potential political disaster. But the problem is when there are multiple candidates seeking the nomination and none have gotten enough votes to cross the finish line. In this instance, Superdelegates can be used to restore order and prevent the convention from dragging on too long. Though Superdelegates are seen as a real disaster, they may actually be a more useful means of helping the party end a divisive fight early on, and get down to the business of winning in November.

There’s another problem that is overlooked until the election. When the conventions really started gaining power in the 1840s, they looked to decide the nominees and also to mollify the losing party. Battles in the conventions were fought before the nominee was chosen, and therefore there was a lot of importance attached to campaign platforms. There was also a hope that it would be a place to smooth over differences.

Today, those same campaign platforms are basically box office poison. No candidate follows them. Instead, they are places where the losers’ supporters try to damage the presidential candidate by forcing votes on politically unpopular position. Candidates try to distance themselves from this vote -- Bob Dole claimed not to have read the platform in 1996. Fortunately, today there is a simple answer. Just get rid of the platform itself. There’s no reason for them, and if the parties had a modicum of self-preservation, they would see the value in ditching them immediately.

The two parties need to consider what they actually want to get out of a presidential nomination process. The answer is always the same. It is not the best possible public servant, not a candidate who follows the party’s ideals and not a candidate who has the best resume. What the party wants is to win in November. They need to start crafting the nomination process to get that candidate into office. A look at the wreckage of the past six months, and the damage wrought on the two major party candidates shows that the current method is not succeeding.


Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York. He blogs at The Recall Elections Blog