Tuesday, April 12, 2016

On Democratic Party Rules Changes for 2020

UPDATE (7/25/16): The Democratic National Convention passed a rules package that included the the charter of a Unity Reform Commission to examine the rules outside of the convention before 2020.

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Primary and caucus season is just a little more than two months old (with three months to go until the national conventions), but already people are coming up with ways to "fix" the process for 2020 and beyond. The Post's Greg Sergent recently weighed in under the headline "Here's one way the Clinton-Sanders brawl could end well". The premise? The Democratic presidential nomination battle could lead to delegate selection rules changes at the national convention in Philadelphia.

Well, maybe, only that is not really how it works. Meaningful change rarely comes directly out of the national convention on the Democratic side. Unlike their Republican counterparts, there is no baseline set of rules that emerges from one convention to guide the process (with some tweaks thereafter during the last two cycles) for the next cycle.

Instead, the Democratic National Committee through its Rules and Bylaws Committee has traditionally empowered a commission to reexamine the nomination rules and recommend changes to them in the time after the presidential election of one cycle. Those recommendations are then handed off to the Rules and Bylaws Committee to vote on and pass usually during the summer of the midterm election year between cycles.1

Nothing, then, really happens rules-wise at the Democratic National Convention.2 Sure, there is a report on rules from the Rules and Bylaws Committee to the convention, and said Committee meets immediately after the convention, but any rules tinkering takes place well after the convention (or it traditionally has in the post-reform era).

Heated battle or not during primary season, the Sanders campaign may have little leverage on this issue at the convention itself. The key will be the long game: getting surrogates on the Rules and Bylaws Committee who can affect change through that channel. This is the sort of thing that latent campaigns do during the rules-making phase; something the would-be Sanders campaign and allies failed to do in 2013-14.

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Not to pick on Sargent, but he does go on to catalog a number of changes at which the party could look. And the list is made up of the usual suspects :
  • Eliminate superdelegates
  • Eliminate caucuses
  • Limits on the number of primaries on one day
  • Eliminating closed primaries
This always operates like a quadrennial deja vu.

It is the same list. Go ahead. Give the FHQ posts from the 2009-10 proceedings of the Democratic Change Commission a glance. Or look at the DCC's recommendations: 1) reducing the number of superdelegates by shifting add-on delegates out of the category and making them the PLEOs (Party Leaders and Elected Officials) that are now a part of the process and 2) developing a set of "best practices" for how caucuses should be run. One could also look at the scant deliberations of the Rules and Bylaws Committee in 2013-14.

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. And they often run the risk of crossing the  Sununu line; that parties are better served by attempting to manage rather than control the component parts of the presidential nomination process.

Why?

Well, when state parties opt into state-funded primaries, they cede the power in most cases to set the date of that primary (see clustering issue above) or to determine who can participate in that primary (open vs. closed). And state parties, more often than not, opt into those state-funded primaries to avoid having to raise and spend money on an election rather than on other party-building exercises.

Eliminating caucuses means some states with some combination of Republican-controlled state governments, no presidential primary, a closed system and no means of funding a primary election have to somehow overcome all or some of those barriers to comply. Perhaps one could take exception with what Washington Democrats do: traditionally hold caucuses despite having a Democratic state government (in most cases) and a presidential primary option. Perhaps Democrats in the Evergreen state could be convinced to change tradition.

But what about a state like Maine or Wyoming or Iowa where there is a mix of state government partisanship and no primary system in place? Can the Democratic National Committee make Wyoming Republicans in change of state government institute a primary?3 Are they willing to foot the bill for that election if not? If they are unwilling, this is an unfunded mandate that would hypothetically force Wyoming Democrats to opt for the cheapest form of election for most state parties in similar situations: a caucus.

And what about this idea of reducing clustering? The national parties have attempted for a long time now to reduce frontloading on the presidential primary calendar. Both national parties have a fairly effective mix of rules and penalties to keep states in line, but the overall process is still pretty organic within a broader set of calendar guidelines. The motivation is still there to push to front; to cluster at the beginning of the calendar. And do not lose sight of the fact that the DNC currently has a bonus delegate regime in place to motivate later, subregional clusters of contests. That has been somewhat effective in 2012 and 2016, but has not rid the motivation to move earlier in some states.

This is a thorny set of issues that involves state-level traditions that stretch back more than just a cycle or two and partisan divisions between state government control and the national parties. Very simply, the national parties have managed the nomination system to varying degrees in the post-reform era by deferring to the states on a number of issues to allow states to better tailor a plan that works for them but also within an overarching set of national party guidelines.

That is an institutionalized feature of the process that seeks to overcome a multifaceted coordination problem: nominating a presidential candidate within two diverse, big tent parties.

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 non-starter, but that idea is a long way from being enacted (even if Sanders supporters sit on the RBC or a commission examining the rules).

The only addition to the list of perennial grievances is the handling of the debates. This is something that is not really codified in the Democratic Party rules. The RNC added debates-curtailing rules to their rulebook, but with mixed results. But even that can get pretty close to the Sununu line.

If one is placing bets on likely rules changes or additions, look to the debates issue. The others are more difficult to manage much less control.


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1 That post-reform routine was disrupted after 2012. Rather than have a commission look at the rules and recommend changes, the Rules and Bylaws Committee handled that task directly.

2 It is right there in the Charter of the party. None of the rules-changing activity is confined to just the national convention and by practice it has happened outside it.

3 Yes, Wyoming legislators are considering a switch, but on their own, not as part of some directive from a national party.



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