A Primer on Primaries

It’s primary season. Yay! The Democratic debates have begun. Woo hoo! And the Democrats are in the process of determining who their candidate for the 2020 presidential election will be. Gulp.

Of course, we know that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. But who will be the Democratic nominee? Twenty-five people are vying for that title, and the primary process will whittle that number all the way down to one, who will oppose Trump in the general election. What is there to know about the process? After all, primaries are just like any other election: all the same rules apply to primary elections and general elections. Right?

Wrong.

It’s true that individuals will vote in the primaries and caucuses, and theoretically at least, the results of the individual races will get tallied up and that will determine who the winner is. Yes, in theory, the various candidates will lay out their vision in a series of campaign stops and debates, and in a long drawn-out process of primaries and caucuses (with the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary starting in February, continuing on through Super Tuesday in March, and even dragging on into June when the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia finally get to have their say) voters will make their choice about who they want as their candidate.

But.

During primary season there’s a lot more going on than you may realize, and what happens behind the scenes actually has a very big impact in determining a party’s eventual nominee.

Frankly, voter input might not actually be the biggest factor in determining who eventually appears on the general election ballot, and while that might seem unfair, undemocratic, or even unconstitutional, it isn’t. The fact is, we don’t have a constitutional right to have any input at all into who the candidates are.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that you have a right to determine who the presidential candidates are. After all, you have to vote for one of them. But as surprising as it might seem, none of what we have come to know as “election season” — the process of running for office, selecting and nominating candidates, primaries, debates, conventions — none of that is an official part of our presidential election process.

I think the biggest surprise to many people might be that political parties (Democrats and Republicans, Greens and Independents, etc.), are not laid out in the Constitution. Nope, parties are never mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. The whole party system in fact, came along after the Constitution was ratified. In fact, the entire idea of political parties was debated and then rejected because our wise-beyond-their years Founding Fathers were opposed to them. In his farewell address, George Washington actually warned against political parties and their corrupting influence. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for parties to develop. The first parties (the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans) developed in the early 19th Century though they bear little resemblance to the parties that we have today.

And so while you do have a constitutionally protected right to vote, you actually have no right to determine who your choices are. Since the process of selecting the candidates isn’t enumerated in the Constitution at all, political parties have swooped in to fill the void and have made up their own rules. The rules, their interpretation, and their implementation are controlled by the parties’ governing bodies known as the Democratic National Committee (the DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC). Those national committees are private organizations, not actually part of our government in any way. It’s their job to keep their parties organized and running smoothly. They raise money and distribute it to candidates, they hold nominating conventions, create the platform that defines what the party stands for, and so much more. Party organizations wield a tremendous amount of power behind the scenes.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that a political party is basically a business with a product to sell. What’s their product? Their product is their candidate. And voters are the potential buyers. The sale comes in November 2020 when you mark your ballot for a candidate in the general election. At the current point in the process, DNC Company has been presented with 25 different versions of the product and company executives are trying to decide which version to go with. How many potential buyers prefer each of the various versions? How many buyers will end up opting for their competitor’s product?

Like any other business, they’re doing a lot of market research at this stage of the game. They’re looking at polls and focus groups; they’re looking at past voter behavior. Analysts and strategists are busy trying to predict the future and learn from past mistakes. The DNC is carefully watching town halls and debate performances and monitoring voter reaction to those performances, looking at things such as the number of Google searches for candidates during and immediately following the debates. They’re watching social media and looking at how many new followers candidates are picking up. They’re also watching where donations (both large and small) are flowing. They’re trying to get a sense of which candidates are picking up momentum and which ones are losing steam. Essentially, the party is trying to read the tea leaves. Eventually they will make their decision on which product version to sell. And they’re doing all of that right now, early on in the process, long before the first primary vote has been cast. They’re not waiting to tally up the results of the primaries, because they have their own ways of influencing the outcome.

You see, the reality is there’s real tension between the democratic ideal of letting the people decide who a party’s candidate should be and the need to keep the decision in the hands of the experts — career politicians, strategists, advisers, analysts — the leaders of the party who have devoted their lives to understanding politics and the political climate. And party leaders really don’t want to open the decision to ordinary voters.

Why? Because people vote based on all kinds of different factors. Individuals may vote, as they often do, based on gut feelings, who they “like,” the candidate’s stand on one particular issue (abortion, guns, health care, etc.), demographics (considerations of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation), rumors, yard signs, mailers, TV and radio ads, social media posts, and any other damned thing that strikes a person’s fancy. While in a primary election, one might hope that these voters also take into consideration the viability of the potential nominee at the general election, this might not necessarily be the case.

A prime example of the people’s choice run amok is Donald Trump. The Republican Party leadership did not want Trump as the Republican candidate for the presidential race in 2016. For one thing, they didn’t feel that he embraced the party’s platform or political philosophy. And for another thing, they didn’t think he could win in an election against Hillary Clinton. (Obviously, they were wrong.) They made it very clear that they didn’t want to nominate him and they did everything in their power to try to ensure that he was not their candidate, including coming out and saying: “We don’t want him as our candidate!” But the voters spoke, and because of the rules the RNC had in place at the time, they lost control of the process and were left with no choice but to nominate him as their candidate.

Republican Party Leaders made it clear that they didn’t want Trump as their candidate.

The Democrats, having been similarly burned in 1972 and 1980, tried to avoid such a scenario on their side in 2016. The party leadership was so convinced that the voters would make the wrong choice in selecting their candidate that they used Superdelegates (party elites whose votes count more than that of ordinary voters) to tilt the results of the primary elections away from Bernie Sanders in favor of Hillary Clinton, thus giving her the nomination.

I suppose it may sound harsh, but party leaders really only care about one thing: electability. But it’s not harsh; it’s just reality. Because getting their candidate elected is really the raison d’ĂȘtre for the national committees. So they try to ascertain which potential candidate has the best chance of winning in the general election. Their calculation will consider factors such as strategy, policy, experience, polling data, etc. (My experience also tells me that just as in any other organization, party insiders are human beings and so they are also influenced by their own self interest. So (whether consciously or not) they can’t help but consider their own friends, factions, and power base, and whether an eventual candidate is going to retain them or replace them with their own people.) And while one might hope that the party leaders would take into account the desires of its own party’s voters, in reality that is not the ultimate consideration.

But in modern America, no party can afford to be seen as taking the selection process out of the hands of its voters. That would be viewed as undemocratic. And so parties find themselves in a bit of a conundrum in the current political climate.

Nevertheless, the party, still has a lot of power to influence the selection of the nominee since they determine the rules of the primary game. For example, they make the rules for participating in debates, (no doubt you’ve seen that candidates have had to meet certain criteria in order to be able to participate in the debates); they set the rules for the debates themselves. (These rules will favor the strengths of certain candidates over others). They use their multi-million dollar war chest in favor of certain candidates rather than others. They deploy their vast army of talking heads and commentators in both obvious and subtle ways to hone their message, drive the narrative, and influence public opinion. And as I mentioned above, they may call in Superdelegates to put a thumb on the scale. All of these things and more are decided and implemented by the Democratic National Committee (as well as its state “subsidiaries”) and they have a huge impact on the eventual results.

Looking at everything the DNC is doing and signaling at this point, I think its fair to say that they have a preferred candidate — the one they claim has the highest polling numbers, greatest name recognition, and most donations. You know, the one they keep telling us is the most “electable.” But I don’t think Joe Biden is our best chance of winning in 2020.

So why does this matter? It’s important to recognize that the party leaders are in the process of making their choice right now, and doing everything within their considerable power to make their choice stick. We, the voters, need to think of ourselves as part owners of DNC Company. We need to make the executives listen to us. How do we do that? We need to do what we can to make our opinions known, in ways that will make the DNC take notice. That means making donations right now to candidates that we like. Even small donations, like $1 or $5, when they come in in large enough numbers, indicate real grassroots energy and make the party take notice. We also need to use the power of social media: liking a candidate’s page or following on Twitter and/or Instagram. Retweeting, sharing, mentions, and clicks on videos and ads help let the party know that there is real interest in a candidate. As does attendance at rallies and fundraising events. So if you have a candidate that you really like, you need to do what you can to signal your interest to the party right now. Don’t wait until after the primary process has gotten under way. By then it may well be too late.

Now, more than ever, it’s important for every voter to do everything in our power to ensure that we have a candidate that we feel passionately about and who we can support wholeheartedly. The thing that’s most likely to sink us in 2020, as it did in 2016, is voter apathy.

And I know, as you make your decision, you’ll be smart enough to keep in mind that all-important factor of electability.

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