How would you build a better nominating process?

The Democratic National Committee is putting together a Democratic Change Commission to review possible changes to the presidential nominating process. According to the Associated Press, DNC leaders want to reduce the number of superdelegates and “regain control of the primary calendar”:

A goal of the new commission would be to establish a calendar in which only a handful of states would be allowed to hold nominating contests before March.

This diary at MyDD contains the full text of the press release. Here is an excerpt:

Today the Obama Campaign and the Democratic National Committee announced a proposal to establish a special commission to recommend changes to the Democratic Party’s rules for delegate selection and presidential primary timing for future presidential cycles. The proposal will be presented to the Convention Rules Committee on Saturday in Denver.

The ‘Democratic Change Commission’ will address three issues 1) changes to the opening of the window and pre-window, 2) reducing the number of superdelegates and 3) changes to the caucus system. The goal of the commission will be to ensure that no primary or caucus is held prior to the first Tuesday in March of 2012, with the exception of the approved pre-window states, whose contests would be held during February 2012.

I’m all for reducing the number of superdelegates and strictly limiting the number of states that can hold primaries or caucuses before March.

But if we are going to increase the relative importance of pledged delegates, we need to be aware that the pledged delegate count does not necessarily reflect the will of the people.

Longtime readers know that I am not a big fan of the caucus system even in Iowa, where voters and party officials have a lot of experience with it. I don’t think any of the alleged benefits of caucuses outweigh the barriers to participation that caucuses create.

Furthermore, no state but Iowa can claim any genuine party-building benefit from caucuses, because other states didn’t have multiple campaigns organizing at the precinct level for months.

Many states switched from primaries to caucuses in order to save money, figuring the nomination wouldn’t depend on that state’s vote anyway. As a result, poorly-trained precinct chairs presided over chaos in many parts of Nevada.

Even where caucuses ran relatively smoothly, turnout was unnecessarily limited, and results were skewed.

Consider Minnesota. Probably Obama would have won a primary there, but would he have won it by a 2-1 margin, as he did the caucus delegate count? Seems unlikely.

In Colorado, Nebraska, and several other states, Obama emerged with three or four times as many delegates as Hillary Clinton. Again, he probably would have won a primary in those states, but not by that kind of margin.

Even worse, in Nevada and Texas, Obama emerged with more pledged delegates even though more voters turned out to support Hillary. I would want to change the way pledged delegates are allocated so that no candidate could lose the popular vote in a state while winning the pledged delegate count.

Not only that, one caucus-goer in Wyoming had as much influence over the pledged delegate race as 19 primary voters in California (here is the link). That’s partly because caucuses attract lower turnout and partly because smaller states have a disproportionate number of delegates in the Democratic Party’s current nominating system.

I will be interested to see what this commission recommends with respect to caucuses. My preference would be to ban caucuses for purposes of presidential candidate selection, but I’m sure that a commission created with the participation of the Obama campaign would never agree to that reform. My guess is that they will propose some nominal changes to caucuses but will do nothing to discourage states from holding caucuses instead of primaries.

Before anyone gets upset in the comments, please note that by criticizing the caucus system, I do not intend to excuse the strategic failure of the Clinton campaign to have a game plan for the caucus states.

But if we are going to reduce the number of superdelegates, or require superdelegates to get behind the pledged delegate leader in their states or districts, then we better have a more equitable system for allocating the pledged delegates.

It was wrong for Obama to net as many pledged delegates from a low-turnout caucus state as Hillary netted in the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries. She exceeded Obama’s popular vote count by more than 200,000 in each of those states.

  • I have to defend the caucus system

    It is true that there are drawbacks, but appart from New England town meetings, the caucus is the only real example of participatory democracy we have. Instead of just pulling a lever (or filling in a dot), a caucus provides the opportunity for real discusion, for give and take, for ordinary citizens to do some politicking. A friend of mine once said she thought the caucus gave her a real sense of community.

    As far as limited participation is concerned, I don’t think this is such a great issue for a party, which after all is a private organization. It is not so weird to think that those who are willing to go out of their way to participate in the party should decide who is nominated. a party is not a little country, its an organization of people united by common values and devoted to certain political goals.

    That being said, there are obvious drawbacks-some people just can’t get off work (I distinguish these individuals from those who are just not interested enough to attend). Maybe some absentee process or proxy voting can be made viable to help in these cases, and maybe a mixed system, such as they had in Texas, can combine the virtues of caucus and primary.

    • in Maine they have absentee ballots

      for caucuses, but I can’t see how that would work in a multiple-candidate race. Maybe people could rank their second and third choices on the ballot?

      People get one chance every four years to weigh in on their party’s nominee for president. I think it should be easy to participate.

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