McCaskill on presidential nominating

The Democratic Change Commission has recommended ending the use of unpledged superdelegates and moving back early primary contests to a later date, as reported by The Kansas City Star Prime Buzz on Wednesday. Thanks to Combest for the link.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) co-chairs the thirty-seven member commission along with Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina). Larry Gates, state chairman for Kansas Democrats, also serves on the panel.

The Barack Obama campaign and DNC jointly announced its creation in August of last year, and it was made official by a resolution at the national convention. Any changes that are actually adopted could technically be in place by 2012, but wouldn’t have any practical effect until 2016, when the Democratic nomination is once again an open contest.

I haven’t read the full report – it doesn’t appear to be on the DNC website – but this would seem to be a mixed bag.

The idea of moving back some primary contests seems to be a good thing. America’s “permanent campaign” for the presidency is unhelpful on several levels: it takes elected officials away from their duties, or puts them at a campaign disadvantage if they stay in Washington and their home states to fulfill them fully; it discourages potentially good candidates who are daunted by the prospects of a lengthy, grueling campaign march; the campaign and press coverage slowly but steadily become more negative over time; and by diffusing the contest over a long period of time, voters tend to tune out. Plus, the extended nomination process simply becomes wasteful and annoying at some point.

The impact of such a change would seem to be lessened if the first contest – the Iowa caucuses – are not also moved back but again this seems to be, from a purely analytical standpoint, a good thing.

I’m not quite as sure on the other key recommendation, the idea to not let superdelegates pledge their support to whomever they wish. (Superdelegates are current and former elected officials who have been vested with a convention vote for the nomination). Doesn’t that defeat the very purpose of superdelegates? Perhaps not entirely. You still get to be a delegate, and even have the word “super” in front of your position. But without the pop. That’s going to chafe some among party elite.

Ending the use of superdelegates would seem to take the party back to the days before the Hunt Commission of the early 1980s, when superdelegates were established. The idea then – a decade after the McGovern Fraser Commission lead to lackluster candidates like McGovern, Carter and Mondale – was to give those with proven political judgment and the best interests of the party in mind a strong voice in the process. The perk was also designed to retain white, Southern, moderate and conservative Democrats in the party and at the convention, as the party drifted left during the sixties and seventies.

Ending superdelegates as we know them would make the Democratic nomination process more purely democratic. For some people, that’s a good thing. However, it’s not always a recipe to produce a candidate most likely to win general elections.

There was a lot of talk about superdelegates last year when Barack Obama established momentum in the nomination process but many superdelegates had already pledged their support to Hillary Clinton. Some feared a disaster (think 1968, Chicago) if Obama out-performed Clinton but yet was not awarded the nomination. It’s true that this would have caused some fireworks, especially given the historic racial dynamics at play.

In the end though, some superdelegates switched their support, and those who stayed with Clinton (in particular, those who did so in contrast to popular vote results in their home state) were not enough to change the natural outcome of the election. The superdelegates as a whole acted prudently, and Democrats won the election. Why the impulse to change things now?

As I said – a mixed bag, it seems. We’ll see if the party adopts the changes and how things shape up. It might be years before we know for sure how this will affect the Democratic Party and its future presidential candidates.

[UPDATE: 01/01/10, 5:25 p.m. CST] In his 1993 book Out of Order, political scientist Thomas E. Patterson offers an extensive critique of the media’s role in the presidential nominating process and general election campaign. While critical of modern political journalim, he writes that much of its shortcomings arise from its current miscast role as mediator, rather than message-carrier during presidential contests.

To improve the election process and facilitate responsible coverage thereof, structural reforms must be undertaken. Among these, says Patterson, is the shortening of the campaign calendar. I am indebted to Patterson for his insights on this and related topics. Also, to Dr. William Horner of the University of Missouri for his instruction on the same and other subjects during a lively and informative semester studying politics and the media.

UPDATE II: 6:36 p.m. One last thing: it would seem that by eliminating superdelegates’ independence, some power shifts from party structure to the plebiscite system. In doing so, you take influence away from people with the most information, and give it to those who have less (though of course, primary voters do tend to be motivated and informed relative to the electorate at large). In so doing, the media’s role again becomes enhanced, leaving it to “organize” political choices for voters during the nomination phase. This is not the strong suit or even proper role of the press, according to Patterson, and from this point of view such a change would not seem to strengthen or improve the process.

There’s so much more to discuss here, but I’ll try to leave it at that. I do highly recommend Patterson’s book if you’re interested in press coverage of presidential elections. Or for a more recent take, The Way to Win, by Mark Halperin and John Harris, which looks specifically at the current media environment and its effects on modern elections.

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Filed under 2012 Presidential Election, Democratic Party

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