Preparing for 2020

While there is still plenty of time left in the 2016 election, discussion has already started about the rules for the 2020 election.  Changes to the delegate selection process tends to be driven by “fixing” what the party sees as the problem in the last election cycle.  For example, a lot of the changes on the Republican side (e.g., the binding rules, penalties for states violating the rules) were driven by what the party leadership thought went wrong in 2012 — Ron Paul doing better at state conventions than he did on caucus nights, states violating the timing and proportionality rules.

The two parties are at different stages of the process for modifying the procedures for 2020.  For the Republicans, the process for convening the next convention is part of the party rules .  Normally, the rules can only be amended at the convention.  In 2012, the convention granted limited “one time only” authority to the Republican National Committee to change the process.  Given the difficulty of making changes on the fly during a convention, it is likely that the Republicans might give the RNC this power again.  For the Democrats, the actual drafting of the rules for the next convention is done by the Democratic National Committee after the convention.  Typically, the most that has happened during the nomination process is an agreement to have a study commission to look at revisions to the rules.

The two parties are likely to have very different reactions to the 2016 nomination process.  Within each party, there are likely to be divisions between the “establishment” and the “insurgents.”

For the Republicans, the establishment is likely to perceive that “winner-take-all” and strong binding of delegates is not as good as it looked in earlier elections.  When the field is fractured, winner-take-all benefits the candidate with 30-35% of the vote.  When the establishment is unable to reach a consensus on a candidate, these rules benefit the insurgent.  I would not be surprised to see the establishment push for more proportional primaries (either expanding the proportionality winner or perhaps even barring winner-take-all entirely) and to bump up the percentage required before a proportional primary to become winner-take-all.  I could even see the Republicans adding more district level delegates to make those contests even more proportional.   In most cycles, if the front-runner is an establishment candidate, the party will perceive that — as other candidates withdraw — the votes and delegates will consolidate behind that candidate.  In other cycles, the party needs rules that keep an insurgent from winning a  majority of the delegates, giving the party leadership time to work out the problems between the competing establishment candidates before the convention.

Trump and his supporters on the other hand see the problem as the delegate selection process.  They will want rules that give the campaigns more control over who actually shows up on the convention floor — just in case the nomination battle takes multiple ballots.  They are not going to want to see changes that give more power to “rogue” delegates to veto the primary votes.

As noted above, the Republicans are in a catch-22 about addressing these issues.  While Trump will almost certainly have a majority of the delegates at the convention, they will not all be Trump loyalists.  As such, Trump may not have the votes to re-write the rules.  Additionally, while Trump has complained about the rules, he is probably not likely to care enough to get into a fight over the rules.  On the other hand, as much as the establishment does not like Trump, they are not likely to want to put forward a rules package that implies that the party does not like its nominee.  For this reason, I would not be surprised if the Republicans, for the second time in a row, allows the RNC to resolve these issues after the election.

The Democrats have quite different problems.  The existence of superdelegates gives the establishment more control over the selection of the nominee (at least in theory).  However, the existence of the superdelegates has become counter-productive in two ways.   First, their influence is controversial to say the least — making them a lightning rod for those who want to argue that the rules are unfair or that the “fix” is in against the candidate.  Second, the sheer number of superdelegate votes combined with the proportionality rules makes it very difficult for any candidate to actually win enough pledged delegates to clinch the nomination.  With the internet making it easy for candidates to raise enough money to fight into late May, the ability of the superdelegates to swing the result may make it easier for candidates to keep going.  In any case, the last two contested cycles have gone to the last day of primaries before ending — something the establishment would probably like to see change.

There are two other potential problems revealed by this year’s cycle.   First, as the Republican saw in 2012, a caucus system in which the “first binding step” is not really binding tends to make for contentious and chaotic state conventions.  It’s impossible to run a perfect caucus system, but problems at the state convention are much more likely to become a major story (particularly later in the race when tensions and the frustration levels are higher) than problems at the local level.  Second, who is eligible to vote in a primary can have a significant impact on the results of the primary.  The Sanders supporters are going to want the party to require states to use open primaries.

The superdelegate issue may be one on which the two sides can reach a compromise.  As discussed by Matt, while several state conventions have called for the DNC to abolish superdelegates, that solution is not likely.  What is possible would be an agreement to give the superdelegates half-votes.   This solution would actually benefit the establishment by making it easier to a front-runner to win a majority of the delegate votes in the primary and deflecting some of the attention from superdelegates.

Something that is beyond the absolute control of the national party but might get some discussion would be to encourage California to change its primary date.  California did move up its date in 2008 (holding the primary on Super Tuesday) but has since reverted back to its traditional June date.  It would benefit both California and the national party in California held its primary in April.  Having the state with the largest delegation vote on the last day effectively guarantees that no candidate can clinch the nomination before June.  If California (and New Jersey) moved to April,  there is a chance that a candidate could clinch in early May.  The party rules right now encourage states to hold primaries in May and June (a greater bonus than for holding primaries in April).  While the party does want some incentive to spread things out from March, the incentive to delay until May or later might be reduced.

Another thing that the Democratic Party may wish to consider is making the system less proportional (and more based on state-wide results).   Currently, the Democratic Party starts with a base delegation of 3,000 delegates that are then allocated to the states.  Within each state’s allocation, 75% of the delegation is then allocated to the district-level with 25% allocated to “at-large: delegates based on the state-wide results.  An additional 15% (approximately 450 delegates nationally) are then given to each state as pledged party leaders based on the state-wide results.  If the rules altered the allocation of the state’s delegation to (for example) 60% for district-level delegates, 30% for at-large delegates awarded proportionately, and 10% for at-large delegates on a winner-take-all basis (with the party leader delegation remaining the same), winning the large states would matter more and it would take less of a win to gain a significant number of delegates.

The other issue that could clearly be addressed by the national party is the procedures in caucus state.  Some states (Kansas, Minnesota) do use the initial meeting results to award national delegates while others (Iowa, Maine, Alaska) wait until later stages to award national delegates (with other states using a hybrid system).   Making all statues treat the initial stages of caucuses like primaries would avoid claims that candidates and officials are manipulating the rules at later stages to rig the process.   Additionally, the party needs to continue to push to make caucuses more primary-like to allow greater participation by those who are unable to free their schedule to attend a mass meeting.

The issue that is least likely to be addressed at the national level (at least to the satisfaction of those raising the issue) is the open vs. closed primary issue.  Traditionally, both the national party and the state parties have favored closed primaries.  Long-time activists tend to prefer a system in which only those willing to commit to a party have a say in choosing that party’s nominees.  While they would like greater participation in the primary, they do not see requiring a person to opt to join the party before voting in the primary to be a particular great burden.  More importantly for this debate,while the state parties do have some First Amendment rights to alter the rules, most defer to the choice of their state legislatures on this issue.   The most that is likely to happen is that the national party will encourage state parties to lobby for changes to the deadline for switching party registration.

The question for Democrats heading into the convention is whether Clinton and the DNC will agree to take a formal look at any of these issues for 2020.  One thing that has been clear in both parties is that those who do not regularly participate in party politics do not fully understand either the process by which the delegate selection rules are drafted or the actual delegate selection rules.   It is unlikely that the Clinton representatives on the Rules Committee at the convention will agree to changes that will take the power to draft the national delegate selection plan away from the DNC.  Because the Democratic Party is likely to defer these issues to 2017 or 2018, these issues will continue to linger until after the election.

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