An Era of Unchecked Presidential Primaries

Posted in: Politics

Neither Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been driving the process for selecting the Democratic presidential nominee, nor businessman Donald Trump, who is similarly driving the Republican selection process, is in good standing with the political parties whose nominations they seek. Sanders is a long-time Democratic-Socialist and Trump might be called an ecumenical Republican, who has never before been active in GOP politics. So how is it that both are so deeply influencing the Democratic and Republican presidential races?

Arguments can be made that both Trump and Sanders—particularly Trump—have received a lot of free media coverage, which has clearly boosted their campaigns. Trump from the outset and Sanders from the time he started drawing large crowds at his campaign events. Trump has done it by being outrageous, more the nasty clown than presidential contender. Sanders has drawn attention by promising young people endless rainbows and free puppies, while attacking Hillary Clinton as unqualified to be president.

Sanders, who has raised over $100 million in small contributions, is not sharing his money with the Democratic Party. The self-funding Trump, who is loaning money to his campaign, is doing nothing financially for the Republican Party. And neither candidate is spending great amounts on their campaigns in comparisons with other candidates. See, for example, Jeb Bush who burned through some $100 million that got him nowhere. So it has not been money that thrust Sanders or Trump to the forefront of their races against the wishes of most long-time Democrats and Republicans, nor has it been their unique charisma or the power of their messages. Both are horrible speakers and both reside at the ideological extremes of the parties they want to represent.

I suspect that when the history of this election cycle is written both Sanders and Trump will be viewed as the products of a deeply troubled news media in transition, running at a time when traditional journalism was dying and being substituted with spectacle as an attention-grabbing substitute to sell advertising. Both Trump and Sanders attract eyeballs, while their opponents do not.

This is not to blame the news media for either candidate’s rise, rather merely to state the obvious. But something even more telling has occurred, largely unnoticed by the public. These fundamental changes in journalism have occurred at a time when both national parties have almost no voice or control in the selection of their presidential candidates.

To understand what is occurring, and how two candidates who subscribe to views well outside the mainstream of their party have taken charge, it is necessary to look at the process and how it has changed, for Sanders and Trump have made it clear that in this age of the Internet, they really do not need a national party. For Sanders the Internet has provided a funding tool. For Trump the Internet has provided a way to communicate directly with his followers at almost no cost. For Sanders the Internet means he does not need the fundraising lists of the DNC. Trump does not need the RNC mailing lists.

To understanding the ability of Sanders and Trump to succeed, a bit of historical context may help.

Selecting a president of the United States has never been a truly democratic process, nor did our founders intend otherwise. The Electoral College eliminated direct election of the president from the outset. And the Constitution is otherwise silent on the presidential election process, other than to require a few qualifications: citizenship and 35 years of age. In the beginning, of course, there were no political parties. Members of Congress selected candidates to run for the highest office. But as parties developed and the Republicans and Democrats emerged as dominate parties, they became the integral to the machinery of selecting who would run for president. Accordingly, Republican and Democratic bosses made those selections, and for many decades they did a surprisingly good job. As anyone familiar with this history appreciates that neither a Sanders or Trump could have emerged from a smoke-filled room.

(Note: Do not tell me, well, Harding did! I have written a biography of Warren Harding, and by any standard—past or present—he was a good president. When writing that biography, I discovered the only reason history has not treated Harding well is historians do not really know what he did and did not do. So ignorance explains falsely labeling Harding a bad president. For example, Harding reversed the racist policies of his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson; travelled to the South to enlist blacks into the GOP; created the Bureau of the Budget; obtained the first arms agreement; transitioned the nation from the war footing of WWI to the roaring 20’s—to mention a few of his accomplishments before he died of a heart attack three years into his first term, which was scandal free. He died the most beloved president since Lincoln.)

Presidential preference primaries began in the early 1900s, and they have evolved slowly but not all states have adopted them. Many states still hold party caucuses to select delegates. Today, the party leaders have little role in the process, although the “super delegates” of the Democratic Party remain a limited check an extremist candidate getting the Democratic nomination. Today, both Republicans and Democrats have similar but slightly different processes for selecting their presidential candidate which are set forth in their rules and require candidates to proceed state by state to acquire delegates. Each state decides the time and nature of his delegate selection process. This year the selected delegate will meet at their respective conventions this summer—the Republican National Convention in Cleveland from July 18 to 21, 2016, and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia from July 25 to 28, 2016—where a majority will select their party’s standard-bearers.

Most of the 20th century the party had great control over the presidential selection process. Many candidates, in both parties, disliked this influence in the selection process. No one disliking the party’s involvement more than Richard Nixon, who openly ignored the Republican Party to get elected in 1968 and reelected in 1972. He built his own election organization in 1968 and then a reelection organization in 1972, funded them, and made the Republican National Committee a minor player in his elections.

In varying degrees, presidential candidates of both parties have followed the Nixon model, which has all but removed any true relevance of the national parties in presidential politics. This has coincided with the rise and growth of both Republican and Democratic committees formed by party members of the U.S. Congress, where both parties now have active House and Senate committees recruiting and funding House and Senate candidates, as well as assisting those seeking reelection. Today, the party national committees have become little more than token operations, repositories of election and voter data, which takes time and considerable money to accumulate and is indiscernible for winning elections at the local, state and national level. So that is important. Also, of course, they help organize and manage the quadrennial national conventions—although the presidential candidate will take control of this operation as well once he or she is the presumptive nominee.

Bottom line, today there is no restraining influence of national Republican and Democratic parties on presidential candidates. Candidates simply do not need the parties. Similarly, today the fractured media has little influence. Candidates can go around the establishment media via the Internet. Thus, presidential candidates push agendas that have little relationship to reality or the mainstream of their party—which both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have done with relish—and the candidates can do so largely unchallenged and unchecked in the primary process.

For this reason, we must hope that voters can sort it all out in the general election when the nominees of each party challenge each other. Kind of a frightening thought.

  • Joe Paulson

    “Both are horrible speakers and both reside at the ideological extremes of the parties”

    That is at least somewhat unfair. They are good speakers in certain ways; they don’t attract crowds for no reason. Also, Sanders isn’t THAT “ideological extreme” these days — he is more left leaning than many but there is a left wing to the party. Trump is clearly extreme in certain ways, but in others (e.g., being at least hesitant about going to war with Iraq in 2002; praising some things Planned Parenthood did … you know deep down he doesn’t care about abortion either) he is not. That is actually a reason he gets support that Cruz (who might not be but comes off as a true believer) gets (putting aside how much Cruz’s personality turns off people).

    • nancygold

      Both Sanders and DRUMPF are FRINGE! like outside the “norm” get it? Both are OFF THE RESERVATION and NONSENSICAL!

      • Joe Paulson

        Sanders’ overall message of the problems inequality of wealth and corruption of money in politics is far from “fringe.” If he was so “fringe,” he wouldn’t have received so many votes — often 40% or more of the vote. Trump is also not “fringe” — his message fits rather well with the typical Republican voter & if he was a bit less of a jerk, he probably would get even more support. How is, e.g., his anti-undocumented Mexicans position “nonsensical” to Republican voters?

  • toto

    Note: The National Popular Vote bill is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes, and the presidency, to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The National Popular Vote bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


    • nancygold

      How did that help us AVOID a disastrous POTUS like WAR CRIMINAL W BUSH? Gore won the popular vote…where did that get us?????

      • toto

        The National Popular Vote bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
        All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

  • Interesting article, and it started in an interesting place with the financial models of the mass media–but then dropped the ball. Functional democracy or even indirect republican government ultimately relies upon an informed bass of voters who can make rational decisions based on useful data provided by the media. What we have now is clearly broken. While CNN may have a pure heart, their 24/7 news model is fundamentally broken because most of the time nothing newsworthy is going on, so they have to milk the most sensational stories in a never-ending and ultimately futile quest for more ad money. In contrast, the most “successful” media organization has a black heart but profits as a propaganda arm of the 0.1%, pushing ever more successfully so that “government of the corporations, by the lawyers, for the richest 0.1% shall rule the earth.” Abe Lincoln would not find the joke funny.

    Say, here’s a crazy idea that would apply even to such esoteric media outlets as Justia. What if John Dean’s article about the problem was followed by some project proposals to SOLVE the problems? The projects could range from a minor one to help pay for the author’s time to large projects that might reform our broken political processes. If enough readers support a project with small donations, then that project should get funded, and later on the results would be evaluated and reported (in accord with the success criteria that should be part of each proposal). My suggestion is that the money be held by a kind of charity brokerage that would earn their percentage by making sure the proposals were complete and realistic, including the budgets, schedules, and success criteria, and then by the evaluations and reporting on results…

  • Paul R. Jones

    Well written piece. I do find Mr. Dean’s omission of Mrs. Hillary Clinton from the text to be curious as Mrs. Clinton’s election machinery remains a mystery to folks like myself that do not understand the logic in how a portion of the voters of this Republic fawn faithfully over her Presidential bid when she is being investigated by the FBI at the behest of the Inspector General for the Republic’s 17-intelligence Community Agencies…many of whom sit on the NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL. No other such Presidential candidate has such out-sized personal baggage and questionable integrity/honesty/trustworthiness reputation. And yet, Mrs. Clinton will probably be the Democrats Presidential candidate unless there is an indictment recommendation from the FBI on behalf of the 17 Agency’s who were in all likelihood livid in a purple-faced rage at Mrs. Clinton’s ‘loose canon’ personal un-secure server/storage unit and the train wreak that caused. Mrs. Clinton’s indictment would certainly change the present political landscape and most definitely spark more media coverage and many pundits, talking heads and others whether DOJ does anything…I assume the 17-Intelligence Community Agencies will demand consequences for Mrs. Clinton’s apparently ever expanding number of violations of national security protocols…I personally do not see these ‘up-tight’ 17-Intelligence Community Agencies give a ‘pass’ on Mrs. Clinton’s knowing behavior in violating national security protocol beginning with 22-TOP SECRET/SPECIAL ACCESS PROGRAMS discovered on her personal un-secure server/storage unit. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, seems to speak to the general citizenry’s (perhaps the ‘silent majority’) ever increasing anger over mainstream politicians of any strip. Mr. Trump’s ability at sparking controversy seems to ‘push’ the silent majority’s buttons just in the correct way…whether that carries Mr. Trump to a successful Presidential bid remains to be seen. The expected match-up between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton should produce lively debates…debates that will delight the media ratings. And, I am confident Mr. Trump will not leave alone Mrs. Clinton’s FBI/17-Intelligence Community Agencies investigation or the mysterious financial dealings of Mrs. Clinton’s CLINTON FOUNDATION et al especially in the event there is a tie-in hiding in the 30,000 or so deleted ‘personal email’ from the errant un-secure server/storage unit between Mrs. Clinton’s Secretary of State duties and funding of her CLINTON FOUNDATION et al.

    Mr. Sanders seems to be a political non-entity…he’s in the mix, but not really there.

    • nancygold

      a more succinct comment would be more effective…your diarrhea of the mouth is confused and nonsensical if not totally partisan…

    • Joe Paulson

      “Mr. Sanders seems to be a political non-entity…he’s in the mix, but not really there.”

      He is a major player in exciting the base & making the Democratic race relevant and promoting left leaning principles instead of one long dull Clinton endorsement process where she was always looking beyond with a more centrist general election message.

      The whole point of the essay was to discuss two upstarts. The point of your comment was to target Clinton, apparently. Different purpsoes.

  • pat

    “Sanders has drawn attention by promising young people endless rainbows and free puppies” Really? Disappointing.