There’s been much hoopla over allegations that the Democratic National Committee “rigged” the primary for Hillary Clinton, thus somehow denying Bernie Sanders a chance at winning the nomination. This allegation, supported by the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Donna Brazile, is categorically false (and those who believe in the vast conspiracy cannot point to hard pieces of evidence showing otherwise). That isn’t to say a party shouldn’t “rig” its primary — it absolutely should. The national committee of all parties should tilt the scales to benefit a desired candidate who the party’s most dedicated stakeholders believe will best serve the party and country’s interest in the short and long run.
Presidential nominations are, by there very nature, party affairs. It’s a discussion largely among loyal partisans (though a number of — too many — independents also influence these decisions) about the ideological direction of the party. The nominee will be the leader of the party regardless of election result. Presidents obviously lead their parties for at least four years (and often eight or more); general election losers still have a say in their parties direction and some retain prominent positions in government or even run for president again. Parties have a natural interest in selecting a candidate who can harness temporary desires, move legislation towards the party’s ideal point, and still continue to lead whether in victory of defeat, for years to come.
The party itself has a vested interest in the party’s anointed leader. Nominees and presidents essentially take over the national committee for years at a time and can either strengthen the central committee through a mix of patronage and dedicated fundraising (much of which the central committee then gives to state parties) or it can leave the party structure neglected as it withers in debt and falls into disarray. This might incline some party actors to favor a former Democratic senator, First Lady, and Secretary of State from a family whose patronage and fundraising abilities helped keep the DNC afloat over, say, a candidate who never bothered to formally align with the Democratic Party until running for president.
Changing the primary rules offers parties their best opportunity to “rig” an election, and even in doing so, the changes made would not salvage the candidacy of its preferred candidate should the voters find that candidate repugnant. Rule changes to maintain the party’s influence in nominating affairs include closing primaries to only those affiliated with a specific party, shortening the primary calendar to keep a high number of candidates in the race through the convention, increasing the number of superdelegates, and unbinding regular delegates elected through primaries (eliminating all caucuses).
Each of these changes increases the likelihood of an open convention — a convention in which no candidate has a majority of total delegates so candidates and their delegates must reach some nomination consensus. This is how parties routinely selected presidential nominees until the McGovern-Fraser reforms that essentially removed parties from the selection process.
An open convention forces consensus and often the consensus candidate that emerges is a moderate voice with governing experience, not a threat to the party or country’s health. Perhaps the most notable example of a consensus candidate is Abraham Lincoln, the first choice of few but the second choice of a great many. Such delegate brokering, often led by party regulars and officials, would likely keep political hobbyists or other demagogues out of power. A brokered Republican convention in which Donald Trump had only 42 percent of the delegates might not have selected him, choosing instead a candidate acceptable to both the far-right and moderate wings (someone like Scott Walker, Haley Barbour, or Mike Pence).
Preventing the likes of Donald Trump from winning the presidential nomination should be a party’s number one priority as that individual has the power to destroy the party itself while degrading the country and its institutions. Voters have done fairly well at avoiding such populist temptations, have made flirtations in the past and now show a willingness to dally with far left or right ideologies. This trend towards demagogic populism furthers the need to reinsert parties into nominating affairs.
It’s a non-intuitive proposal and one with which many will disagree, but in the long-run, avoiding unqualified candidates who manipulate voters’ emotions to serve themselves at the expense of the party and country benefits us all. Let parties “rig” nominations.
For more on presidential nominating contests and the party’s role in them, see “The Party Decides,” which you can purchase by clicking the image below.