National Political Parties Don’t Really Control Their Presidential Nominating Processes

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DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus
Many aspects of the presidential nominating process are beyond the powers of the national parties headed by Schultz and Priebus. Photo: Alex Wong/2015 Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote a stimulating post on the possibility of Bernie Sanders using his leverage over Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party to demand changes in the process that will determine future presidential nomination processes. Aside from the pros and cons of such “reforms,” a more basic question is the extent to which the national parties are in a position to implement them. To a surprising extent, they are not. 

Nominating-process guru Josh Putnam of the University of Georgia made this clear in his comment on Sargent’s piece at his Frontloading HQ site. After noting that Democrats typically punt rules changes to a post-convention commission, Putnam gets to the heart of the problem in promoting nominating-process “reforms”:

The problem, as always, is that the national parties have only so much control over the presidential nomination process. The system started out and has evolved into a patchwork of overlapping national party rules, state party rules and state laws. In attempting to fix the perceived problems of any given cycle, the national parties have to navigate that patchwork.

Take the question of whether to use primaries, as Sargent prefers, or instead the less “democratic” caucuses. Primaries cost a lot of money. As a result, they are generally financed by state governments, which in turn means that state legislatures, not state parties (much less the national parties), decide whether and under what circumstances to hold them. If a given legislature doesn’t want to use tax dollars for primaries, odds are high the state parties will resort to the much-less-expensive alternative of caucuses. Could the national party play chicken with the states by demanding primaries? Yes, but are they really going to disenfranchise a state if it doesn’t comply? So far, no one has been willing to find out. 

Then there’s the whole open-versus-closed primaries issue (again, Sargent thinks “reformers” would prefer open primaries to encourage engagement with indies). The practical implications of this decision depend heavily on state laws governing party registration. Some states make primary- (or caucus-) day changes in party affiliation very easy. Where that’s the case, making a primary formally “open” doesn’t add a lot of value. Conversely, there are 19 states that do not register voters by party. They are automatically going to be “open primary” states. 

Reforms” in the nominating-contest calendar have been a constant issue in recent years, but all the controversy has showed the limited power of the national parties in this area. It has required ever-more-severe sanctions to keep states from moving themselves up on the calendar, and the Democratic Party’s strong preference for proportional allocation of delegates has meant that it cannot offer the inducement of making winner-take-all (or winner-take-most) systems available to states that agree to hold their contests later in the year. And to the extent that state-financed primaries are utilized, changing dates often requires the cooperation of the opposing party since legislatures aren’t generally going to authorize two separate events. 

As Putnam notes, one popular Democratic “reform” doesn’t run afoul of state prerogatives, but encounters another problem:

The problem with eliminating superdelegates is a little different. There is no overlap with state party rules or state laws, but nixing those unpledged delegates is an idea that requires superdelegates — members of the DNC — to vote to strip themselves of that power. It is not a nonstarter, but that idea is a long way from being enacted.

So “fixing” the nominating process runs constantly into implementation problems that create all sorts of unanticipated consequences. Perhaps the truly reform-minded should come up with an approach closer to that of the compacts that authorize and then recommend uniform state laws than of some national “rules changes” that exist only on paper.

National Parties Don’t Control Nominating Rules