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Reforming the Democratic Presidential Nomination

I attended a panel today at Brookings featuring Elaine Kamarck and her new book, Primary Politics. Kamarck is both expert on, and key figure in, the transformation of the Democratic presidential nomination process during the past few decades. The panel was chaired by Brookings’ incomparable Bill Galston, and featured WaPost national political reporter Dan Balz and PoliticsDaily’s Walter Shapiro. I also met briefly with Jeff Berman, the Obama campaign’s “delegate guru,” who has agreed to do an interview with after the upcoming, October 22 meeting of the commission appointed to review and recommend changes to the Democratic Party’s nomination process, of which he is a member.
Let me recapitulate several points made either by Kamarck or one of the panelists, and then offer a few observations:

1. Before turning to the discussion of the 2008 nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and the possible reforms in the nominating rules to come from the commission, Kamarck noted that for the first time the Republicans, who historically have only permitted rule changes to be considered at their quadrennial national conventions, are now also looking at their own presidential nomination process during the interim between 2008 and 2012. She noted, for instance, that Mike Huckabee was severely hampered by the Republicans’ use in many states of winner-take-all allocation of delegates.

2. In the interest of fairness, notably the proportionality rules that guarantee delegates to Democratic candidates who reach a certain (presently 15 percent) threshold, Kamarck says the “Democratic Party has twisted itself into knots over the past 40 years–they have tried so hard to be fair that they have created a system that rewards losers.” By which, I gather, she means not necessarily candidates who will lose the general election (though that has certainly happened), but candidates who underperform in the primaries and caucuses yet continue to remain viable because of proportionality.

3. “If there was a hero” of the 2008 Democratic nomination, at least from a rules and process standpoint, she said, it was Berman, the Obama delegate strategist. Kamarck also mentioned the irony that members of the DNC rules committee, including key Clinton supporters, were among those who sanctioned Florida and Michigan, noting that Obama campaign manager David Plouffe recently admitted that if Florida had been a legitimate and sanctioned primary Clinton might have had both the delegates and momentum to hold off Obama.

4. Balz focused on the significance of the caucus v. primary allocation of delegates, and specifically how Berman and the Obama team were able to maximize the delegates won, particularly in caucus states. He pointed out that (a) Clinton’s net margin in the New Jersey primary of 11 delegates was more than cancelled out by Obama’s net margin of 12 delegates in the Idaho caucus; and (b) that if delegates were apportioned winner-take-all, like they are in the Electoral College, Clinton would have won by about 300 delegates. (That is, presuming superdelegates voted the same way they eventually did, which they probably would not have.) The table above, though created by a Clinton-supporters site, depicts rather clearly the disparities that favored Obama’s caucus-driven strategy.

5. Shapiro spoke to the timing and length of the primary calendar, arguing that the warrant for an earlier and more condensed calendar–which may have made sense in 2000 or previously–is obviated by the campaign finance laws and the end of soft money windfall nominees once stood to reap, and the realization from 2008 that a prolonged primary season is not necessarily a hindrance to the eventual winner and may even be of great benefit.

Some observations:

*There is a certain irony to Kamarck’s “rewarding losers” comment, given that Bill Clinton, for whom she later worked, would have likely been thinned from the herd in 1992 had it not been for proportionality provisions. Kamarck says she supports a mixed system in which early primaries and caucus are proportional, which will weed out the really weak, non-starter candidates, but which at some point turns to winner-take-all contests. Depending on when that change would occur in the cycle, I suppose a candidate like Clinton in 1992 could still have won.

*There was a general consensus among the panelists that superdelegates were philosophically inimical to the Democratic Party’s small-d democratic objectives and traditions. The reform commission, incidentally, is tasked with figuring out ways to reduce the number of superdelegates, which sounds like a reasonable change–although, in order to eliminate the possibility of potential horse-trading the pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses ought not to be carried in the vessel of human delegates but replaced by an inanimate score or total. (This would deprive thousands of candidate supporters of the honorific of attending the convention, of course, but I suspect it would not be a problem to fill the convention arenas.)

*I did not have a chance to ask Kamarck and the panel the question I wanted to, which is how a reduction and/or elimination of superdelegates might have handled a “John Edwards scenario,” in which a candidate wins the nomination under the existing rules turns out to be unelectable for some later-learned reason–a scenario for which superdelegates would be an ideal solution. Fortunately, Kamarck raised this very issue, saying that regular, pledged delegates would be able to handle it. (Kamarck was herself a superdelegate in 2000 and 2004.)

*If superdelegates are to be reduced in number/share of total Democratic delegates, what classes of people will lose their voting rights–party officials of the DNC and state parties, elected officials like members of Congress and governors? If the point, as Galston argued, is to reduce the input of elites, surely it would have to be the electeds who lose their superdelegate votes before party officials do.