Monday, February 13, 2012

Cranky Monday Blogging 2

Does anyone like the redesigned "Sunday Review" section of the NYT? I haven't, much. Except it seems to furnish more and more opportunities for cranky blogging. Such as this week's "Dialogue" about reforming the nomination process.

Why does it make me cranky? Because all the reformers in the discussion miss the basic point of nominations: they are how parties make their most important decisions. Not all citizens, and not all people who might eventually vote for the party's nominee. The parties, themselves. Party actors have a lot at stake in these contests. If there are internal differences, nominations are a key place where those differences are fought out or settled. If there's agreement on policy, party actors need to coordinate on a candidate best prepared to enact those policies. And, at the same time, the nomination process allows parties to force candidates to bind themselves to the party. You'll read sometimes, and quite correctly, that it doesn't matter very much what Mitt Romney really thinks because if he's elected he'll have little choice but to govern as a conservative. That's true -- but in large part because the nomination process is leading him to make promises to conservatives in order to win. Remove party actors from the nomination process, and perhaps that doesn't happen. The classic case is still Jimmy Carter, elected when the newly reformed process was chaotic, and then unable to work well at all with Democrats once in office. Which wasn't a surprise; the lessons he had learned in being nominated were to avoid dealing with Democratic party actors.

So: the "problem" of the nomination process isn't that voters in June primaries don't have as much influence as voters in New Hampshire...it just isn't very important that they don't. The nomination process has to satisfy party actors (which it will if it allows them to compete and coordinate effectively), which I think it currently does. The rest of the nation has a stake in the process being permeable, which I believe it is. The rest of the details? They can matter, but only in the context of party decisions and party permeability. Any outsider who tries to design a nomination system without putting those goals right up front is doomed to irrelevance or worse.

7 comments:

  1. the "problem" of the nomination process isn't that voters in June primaries don't have as much influence as voters in New Hampshire...it just isn't very important that they don't.

    Doesn't that also apply to party actors, though? That is, doesn't the current system mean that party actors in, say, CA or TX, have much less influence than party actors in NH? And isn't that an important problem for the party?

    I get that party elites control the process and aren't necessarily concerned with little things like, you know, who the voters prefer. But I don't see any argument (from the party's perspective) for the permanent placement of one or two states ahead of all the others in timing and priority.

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    1. It doesn't appear that it is a significant problem for party actors in CA, TX, etc. The early votes that are taken are in Iowa and NH, but the resources that matter there are raised all over the nation.

      The argument for a permanent rather than a rotating system is that fixed rules allow the game to be played without giving anyone a chance to win by figuring out new strategies. If the early state advantage was enormous (say, if only resources raised in Iowa mattered in Iowa), then the advantages of fixed rules wouldn't be a big deal, but I don't think the early state advantage turns out to be that big a deal.

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    2. Isn't it, though? The party actors in the counties in IA matter. As they do in CA and TX, but for a different reason: they're connections to the money. But, consider the NM (another June state) party actors. They're essentially ignored...by the media, by donors, and by candidates.

      I guess my problem is the statement "the resources that matter there are raised all over the nation." Money is raised in the major metropolitan centers, disproportionately, because that's where the disposable income is. Favorable news coverage, as well, originates there. Foot soldiers and volunteers are raised from the early states and nearby, and party actors there help in that effort.

      But, we can't pretend that party actors in HI or AK matter. They don't. Neither do they in the Dakotas, MT, or NM. And they're pretty voiceless around the Ohio River Valley. They control neither votes nor money, and their endorsements are unlikely to carry much weight.

      Money is perfectly fungible, but it comes from LA, NYC and DC (with Phoenix, Palm Beach, and Houston rounding out the top ten zip codes). If we aggregate by city, to get to half of all the money from major metropolitan areas, we've got to get down to Houston....NYC, LA, Chicago, Boston, SF, Philly, Houston. 7 cities, nearly a billion dollars in 2008, and about 18% of the total population. And, of course, that resource of money is hardly well distributed WITHIN those areas.

      You know I'm not one to go for the whole "power to the people" thing, but I don't think we can repair to "the money doesn't come from IA/NH" as a defense.

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    3. Yes and no, Matt. Of course NM and ND don't count much, because there aren't any people there. But are you certain that a $100K donor in Los Angeles counts for more than a $100K donor in Fargo? I'm not.

      And don't forget: there are some national organizations involved, and the endorsement-making leaders of those organizations presumably care about all their constituents. That is, the SEIU cares about their members in the Dakotas, right?

      Not saying that there are no advantages to the first states, but I think it's very much overstated.

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    4. Yes, but I'm saying there's A LOT more $100K donors in LA and NY to counteract them being late in the process.

      I'm not saying the system needs to be changed. I'm just saying that no system would perfectly reflect all interested actors in either/both parties. The current system gives more weight to those who happen to live in early states, to those who happen to be wealthy, and to those who are party actors that have resources that speak to one of those groups. That does NOT include a party big-wig in Helena, Montana, whose access to big money donors, voters that could matter, or volunteers that could help matter in a state is quite limited. And that party big-wig has much less power than a similar party official in NH, IA, SC, or NV (or nearby states, thinking of volunteers).

      National primaries would just privilege the money-facilitators more. Pre-1972 favored state party chairs. Random order of primaries favors some combination of the random order and state size, as well as the money.

      In our current system, it behooves a campaign to reach out to all 99 county chairs in IA. It does NOT make any sense to reach out to them in Nebraska or Kansas, which are otherwise not THAT dissimilar of states.

      I'm not saying that we need to count cows as much as we count people. I am saying that any method has winners and losers, and our national policy subsidizing ethanol demonstrates as much.

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    5. If you are a party actor, you want small states to go first because it's very easy to influence and even control the result of a small state's election (especially a caucus). That's far, far more important than regionalism.

      If the Democratic Party started off its nomination process with the California primary, sure, in a sense, Hollywood big money donors would have some influence because California went first, but it would basically be just like any statewide election in California, i.e., subject to the whims of the California electorate and favoring whoever could raise a boatload of money to put TV commercials on the air.

      That said, the other problem you set out IS the problem with the current system-- part of the price of Iowa going first is that the corporations in a state whose products are both polluting and fattening the nation get huge subsidies from the coastal population centers.

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  2. The central problem with the nomination process is that it exacerbates the central problem with our legislative system, namely that the U.S. Senate gives very small states incredible political power, and neglects other minority groups.

    Even if we were able to hold a national primary, or rotate it so that more diverse small states (Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii) had a prominent role in the process, we still wouldn't prepare presidents for a U.S. Congress where Senators representing a sliver of the population are invariably the median voter on important legislation.

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