Smoke Filled Rooms and Reform

Regarding my post about parties and presidential nominations earlier, commenter Bajsa responded:

I wish the parties would just go back to choosing their nominees in smoke filled rooms so the nominating process wouldn’t have to be so visible for 2 years out of a four year term, especially if the parties are choosing their nominees anyway.

Maybe not so many “great stories” but I don’t see how any of this helps the governing side of things.

It’s a good question. The original McGovern-Fraser committee intention back when the system was being reformed was to meaningful and timely participation, with “timely” being defined eventually as having delegates chosen in the election year, not before. That’s obviously not how the system has evolved. Lots of very important decisions have already been made on the Republican side, some of them months ago already, and we’re still more than a year out from the election.

What I’d say in defense of the reformed system are two things. One is that the old system, those iconic smoke-filled rooms, wasn’t stable and by 1968 had produced real problems. The thing is that nominations pre-reform were dominated by the state party organizations, and by 1968 formal party organizations had ceased to be good representations of the party as a whole — and, in many states, at least on the Democratic side, they were able to prevent outsiders (both individuals and groups) from participating at all. Reform, in my view, was badly needed.

As far as the reform we actually got…well, I have less to say in defense of it. It’s in many ways a sprawling mess. But it has been, for about thirty years now, reasonably stable, and that’s allowed party actors to compete and coordinate relatively fairly and at least somewhat efficiently in the sense that it does come to a conclusion and it’s hard to call any nomination since the Jimmy Carter years a true mistake, in the sense that the party wasn’t happy at the time with their decision. I do believe that the reformers emphasis on the democratic rights of ordinary voters was mostly wrong in the nomination context, but their efforts to make the parties more permeable, more internally democratic, were very important and on the whole in my view more successful than not.

What of the length of the process? I’d rather that reporters spend more time on governing than on electoral politics, and within electoral politics relatively less time on presidential elections and more on all other elections.* But I don’t think the nomination process is causing the focus on presidential elections; that has to do with biases within the media, not the way that the process is structured.

*Yes, I’m guilty here as well; my defense is that, well, it’s something that I’ve studied quite a bit. But, yeah, I should spend more time on Congressional elections.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.