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Democrats Burned By Charges Of A Rigged Nomination, But Some In GOP Watch With Envy

Ahead of the California primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally at Ventura College on May 26, 2016 in Ventura, California. The
David McNew
Getty Images
Ahead of the California primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally at Ventura College on May 26, 2016 in Ventura, California. The

One way we know we are (finally) nearing the end of this presidential nominating season is that both major parties have begun talking about big changes to the way they choose their nominees.

Both parties have been stunned by outsider candidates in this cycle. But the shock seems to be moving them in opposite directions. That may be because one party's outsider has actually won the nomination while the other's is falling short.

Some in the GOP are distressed at Donald Trump's taking over, and they want to restore more party control. The changes they contemplate might alter the sequence of voting events or limit independents' participation in the primaries.

The feelings are quite the reverse these days among Democrats. Although Hillary Clinton, the establishment favorite, seems assured of the nomination, she and other party leaders have been stung by runner-up Bernie Sanders' frequent and vociferous accusations of a "rigged system."

Sanders has spoken of the party's voting and delegate rules in the same terms he uses for the campaign finance system, implying the party is not only favoring Clinton but also corrupt — both at the national level and in many states.

Even some of Clinton's foremost fans and the staunchest of party regulars are ready to talk about a fresh infusion of populism for the next round. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, the epitome of a lifetime party insider, allowed this week that "unease in the party" meant it was time to "revisit the delegate selection rules."

So by the time the Democratic convention ends July 28, many of the party's current rules may have changed. There may well be fewer superdelegates and more open primaries allowing any registered voter to take part. There may also be an effort to narrow the differences between the treatment of states holding primaries and those holding caucuses.

Some of these changes would seem likely to favor a future insurgent in the Sanders mold. For example, Sanders benefited when independents were able to vote in the Democratic primaries this spring, most notably in New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Independents are expected to boost him as well in California on June 7.

The Superdelegates

Sanders also has been critical of his party's use of superdelegates, elected officeholders and party officials who are automatically delegates and can vote any way they like. Sanders has said they should at least be required to follow the results of voting in their home states. Such a stricture would have shrunk, but not eliminated, the enormous edge Clinton has had among superdelegates.

But it also would negate the purpose for which superdelegates were created. In the 1970s, total reliance on primaries and caucuses produced George McGovern and Jimmy Carter as nominees, and in 1972 and 1980 they lost in historic landslides. That led many in the party to long for at least a whiff of the old smoke-filled room.

Their solution was superdelegates, a means to leaven the judgment of the voters with an eye toward winning in November. Since then, the number of superdelegates has gone up and down. It now stands at more than 700, or roughly 15 percent of the total.

The next move will be down. But will it be all the way to zero? Probably not. A more likely compromise would be to allow only statewide elected officials and members of Congress to keep their superdelegate status. That would cut this privileged caste roughly in half.

The Caucuses

The wider welcome for independents and the narrower portal for superdelegates would please the Sanders forces because they would bring new participants into the process and reduce the role of the party establishment. But then what about the caucuses, which are great for committed activists but daunting for ordinary voters?

From Iowa to Idaho to Alaska, the caucus states were good to Sanders. Most of the states he actually won were caucus states. Yet to caucus requires hours of commitment, not than just a visit to a polling place or a mailbox. As a result, a caucus typically attracts far fewer participants than a primary, and its results are often further away from the popular sentiment among all Democrats or independents in the state.

One example is the state of Washington, which this spring held both a nonbinding primary and a series of caucuses at the local and county levels. About three times as many people took part in the May primary (which Clinton won with about 53 percent) as in the March precinct caucuses. Yet all the delegates were awarded on the basis of the March caucuses, giving Sanders 74 to Clinton's 27.

It seems safe to say Sanders would not have been happy with that arrangement had the totals been reversed. Honoring the preference of the larger group of voters would have been more consistent with his general call for greater openness.

This is not to say that caucuses are illegitimate. They have a rationale and a point of origin, just like other parts of the process. The caucus method has been employed primarily in states with smaller populations. Because caucus states are allowed to grant disproportionately large shares of their delegates to the winner, these states can attract more attention from the candidates than they otherwise might.

As a candidate in 2008, President Obama leaned heavily on the delegates he won by piling up big margins in small states out West. These payouts helped offset his losses in most of the 10 most populous states. Sanders' forces have adopted that strategy as their own this year. It has worked for them, but not to the degree it worked for Obama.

The Parties

At this stage of the game, many voters, especially first-time voters, wonder why it all has to be so prolonged and complicated. Why do all the states have to have their own events? Why not regional primaries? Or a national primary in each party that chooses the champions for November? Or a national primary without the parties?

After all, the Constitution never mentions or contemplates parties. They grew up in the early years of the republic, in Washington and in state capitals and county courthouses, as private associations organizing political activity to win office and wield power.

In our time, fewer and fewer people identify with either of the major parties. Yet a Republican or a Democrat has still won every presidential election since the Civil War, and the two parties hold all but two of the 535 seats in Congress. In the states, it's pretty much the same story.

Ideas about national primaries or party-free primaries have long been proposed and debated and set aside. They are impractical in part because the states that profit from the current system (especially Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina) care more than the other states and resist changes fiercely and, so far at least, effectively.

Beyond that, the roots of the current system go deep in history and tradition. They are intertwined with the fundamental idea of federalism — which is that the individual states are parts of a whole yet still matter as separate entities with separate identities and separate decisions to make as they see fit.

That is the concept behind the Electoral College, and the parties have long organized their nominating systems around that same concept. The states have jealously guarded the privilege of having their say in the nominations, as well as their right to determine their say in their way.

Today, that is done through primaries and caucuses. But until fairly recently, delegates were chosen and allocated by party leaders, elected officials, funders and fundraisers and activists. They were often controlled by a single leader, such as a governor or senator or state party chairman who could "deliver" them all as a package when the moment came on the convention floor.

But if we have come a long way from those days, there will be those this year who say we have not come far enough. If democracy is good, direct democracy must be better. Arbiters and brokers only dilute the will of the people.

No doubt this idea appeals to many Sanders enthusiasts and not a few of Trump's as well. For these voters, the parties are beside the point and have outlived their usefulness — at least as the winnowers of the presidential field.

But there will also be those, in both parties, who feel they have seen quite enough of the will of the people in this particular election cycle. Some, in Cleveland especially, may be nostalgic for some of the savvy and stability that was lost when we closed the door on the smoke-filled room.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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