What Bernie Should Seek and What Hillary Should Give, Part 2: Primaries Process

By Michael Dorf

In Friday's post, I asked what the prospects are for Bernie Sanders using such leverage as he has to move Hillary Clinton closer to the policy positions he favors. I concluded that on most issues, Clinton finds herself in the unusual position of being able to move to the left without harming her standing with general election voters.

In addition to seeking policy concessions, the Sanders campaign has also indicated that it would like to see reforms in the way that convention delegates are selected in future nominating contests. To be sure, Sanders has been inconsistent these issues. Early in the season, his campaign complained about the role played by super-delegates because there was a chance that Sanders would win more pledged delegates but end up losing the nomination due to super-delegate support for Clinton. More recently, Sanders suggested that despite trailing Clinton in pledged delegates, he should get the nomination because super-delegates should switch their support to him as the more electable candidate (according to polls asking about hypothetical matchups). Thus, the Sanders position has not exactly been principled. Despite some appearances to the contrary, Sanders is, after all, a politician.

So what procedural reforms, if any, should Sanders seek? In a blog post three months ago, I explored how measures that make a party's method of selecting its candidate more small-d democratic for party members will typically work against the nomination of an electable candidate. The short version is that the preferred candidate of the median voter in the party will be pretty far from the median general election voter. A variety of mechanisms are used by the parties to prevent this outcome. The two main ones are super-delegates and either open primaries or primaries that allow same-day party registration. Super-delegates care and know more about electability than do primary voters, the theory goes. Meanwhile open or quasi-open primaries attract independents, whose participation will tend towards centrism.

Uncharacteristically, the just-concluded Democratic primary season was unusual. (The Republican primary season was obviously unusual as well, but my focus here is on the Democrats.) The more-left candidate, Sanders, actually appealed more strongly to independents. Partly this is just a matter of race. In many ways, Sanders was a conventional "alternative" Democrat, who appealed to young, educated, white voters--somewhat more successful but in the same mold as Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean before him. Meanwhile, Clinton did best in states with larger proportions of minority voters, especially African American voters. The early Sanders spin on this phenomenon--that Clinton was winning the South because Southern voters are more conservative--was at best highly contestable.

Okay, but what does it all mean? That depends on what the Sanders goal of reform is. If he values intra-party democracy for its own sake, then he should seek the abolition or substantial reduction in the role of super-delegates. He should also seek the replacement of caucuses with primaries, even though, other things being equal, Sanders did better in caucuses than primaries. The barriers to participating in caucuses are substantially higher than to participating in primaries.

Open or quasi-open primaries are a harder call. Whether one should favor them on principles of intra-party democracy depends on what one means by intra-party democracy. Allowing independents or Republicans to participate in a Democratic primary can undermine the ability of "real" Democrats to choose their nominee, even without shenanigans (like Republicans deliberately voting for the weakest  general-election candidate in the Democratic field). But for whatever reason the Sanders campaign has generally promoted open primaries.

If the small-d democratic reforms I'm imagining had been in effect in the recent primary season, they probably would not have affected the outcome. Clinton wins even without super-delegates, albeit by a smaller margin. More open or quasi-open primaries would have helped Sanders, but more primaries and no caucuses would have helped Clinton.

What about going forward? If we assume that over the long run party leaders will continue to be out of touch with the American people, then eliminating or reducing the role of super-delegates is a no-brainer. I'm not persuaded that party leaders (who are themselves mostly elected officials in one way or another) will be out of touch going forward, but I think that a very popular case can be made for a package of "pro-democracy" reforms that consists of: 1) eliminating super-delegates; 2) replacing caucuses with primaries; and 3) making primaries open or quasi-open with same-day party registration. These intra-party reforms should be packaged with promotion of a policy agenda of making voting in general elections easier and campaign finance reform that together would make a powerful case for the proposition/slogan that The Democratic Party is the pro-democracy party.

Note, however, that two of these three reforms would probably tend to make the Democratic nominee less progressive, assuming that in future elections we would otherwise see the resumption of the normal pattern, whereby caucus-goers are on average more progressive than primary voters and open-primary voters are less progressive than closed-primary voters. Eliminating super-delegates would tend to make the nominee more progressive, however. Whether that effect is large enough to counteract the other effects is anybody's guess. Because super-delegates are about 15% of total delegates to the Democratic convention, under the existing rules in theory it would only take 35% of the pledged delegates plus super-delegates to block a very progressive candidate judged by party leaders to be too progressive to win the general. Thus, eliminating super-delegates probably does at least balance out the impact of the other reforms in terms of how centrist or progressive the nominee is--in most nominating contests.

If we therefore assume that the ideological impact of the package of reforms described above is likely to be small in any event, then there is really no reason not to get behind it. True, Clinton would not want to eliminate super-delegates because she would expect them to support her. But the truth is that it shouldn't matter to her anymore. If she loses the general to Trump, she's finished as a politician. If she wins, then she should win the 2020 nomination handily even without super-delegates. If she would need super-delegates to defeat a primary challenger in 2020, that would mean that she was always going to lose the 2020 general anyway. (Ted Kennedy's 1980 challenge to Jimmy Carter is the key precedent here.)

So bottom line: In a rational world, the Sanders people and the Clinton people would unite behind the package of procedural reforms I've described above, just as they should find considerable common ground on policy, as described in Friday's post. Put differently, the remaining obstacles to a harmonious Democratic Convention and general-election campaign are mostly personal, not policy-based.