Political Parties at the Crossroads

Professor Edward Newman

Edward Newman, Professor of Social Policy

How should political parties pick nominees for president?

This spring and summer have put both major political parties in the limelight, along with the candidates.

From the moment that Donald Trump appeared to be a serious contender, the Republican Party “regulars” have struggled to prevent his nomination. At the recent Republican convention, key figures (such as ex-presidents) were notably missing.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who converted from Independent to Democrat, gradually emerged as a viable primary candidate against ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As his prospects rose, Sanders pitched a substantial portion of his campaign against the “super delegates,” some 717 delegates not elected by the primary voters.  The complaints centered around the approximately 450 super delegates who announced support of Hillary, representing about 9% percent of the persons eligible to vote at the Democratic National Convention. Republican Party rules provide for a smaller number of “unpledged” delegates who are not elected in the primary, just three from each state.

And the further issue has now risen that the top cadre of the Democratic National Committee, including the Chair, have used their position and their staff to support Hillary and hurt Sanders’ campaign.

Primary elections and national conventions are political party affairs. The national committees of the two primary parties set their own requirements, decide how many delegates will be selected, decide what credentials are necessary and what delegations are properly selected and seated, and set up the rules for the convention itself.

Presidential candidates in the earliest days were selected by state legislatures and the Congress. Beginning in the 1830s, political party conventions selected candidates.

Primaries emerged as early as 1912, in some cases to choose delegates and sometimes to express a preference for actual candidates. New Hampshire adopted the primary process with a “beauty contest” primary in 1952 that was very instrumental in the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower.

Then Vice President Hubert Humphrey secured the Democratic nomination for president in 1968 without entering a single primary, defeating Sen. George McGovern and leading to a reform of Democratic Party rules to favor real primaries. Since then the primary has grown and the caucus has tended to shrink as a method of candidate selection.

Still the primary has clear shortcomings: turnout is usually far lower than in a presidential election. Most importantly, in most states the primary polls only those registered in a party. In order to succeed in the national election, a candidate needs broad appeal. The political party leadership claims the right and know how to at least participate in the judgment which candidate has those qualities.

What is the right answer: does the Republican Party need better control of their party’s nominating process? Do the Democrats need less party interference with the primary process?

Edward Newman, Professor of Social Policy at Temple University (retired) and visiting Professor at Sapir Academic College in Israel, shared his historical and political reflections on the topic. Here are some of the points he made.

Our origins are found in a more complete democracy, at least for those eligible to vote. The original settlements in New England held town meetings. Every political decision was made by majority vote (of the men). In more recent years the Democratic Party more closely reflects this popular vote tradition.

Political parties, although not mentioned in the Constitution, are a major element in our civic history. In the last century strong political machines functioned in our large cities: Tammany Hall in New York, the Daley machine in Chicago, and others. These urban political machines stood in stark contrast to the popular election reforms introduced to counter them during the earlier Progressive Era.

But gradually, in the 20th century and since, the Democratic Party has moved in the direction of one person one vote and this gradually reduced the power of party “regulars.” In the larger picture, this trend has been stronger in the Democratic Party, with the Republican Party historically showing a lesser tendency toward broadening the base of popular power.

Yet both parties are now poised to abide by the primary vote in 2020.

Party organizations are still necessary structures, but there need to be rewards for the party faithful to keep the system going between presidential elections.

U.S. political parties will most likely continue to endorse democratic voting procedures in the nominating process. Included are fairness and neutrality to aspirants and candidates from the national party committees and staff. Because the Democrats espouse democracy as the controlling value, the current criticism of lack of fairness by party officials appears to be warranted.

A serious force contributing to the loss of power and influence of the political party per se is the rise of electronic social media and the more individualized forms of journalism that candidates and parties face today. In the next 10 years we will have a better “handle” on the new information technology, the evolving impacts upon the electoral system generally, and the impacts on political parties in particular.

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