If that sounds like an odd question, consider the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nominee. Seventeen people still are in the running, and one, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, may yet jump in.
Much the same happened in the Republican Party four years ago, when Donald Trump emerged despite never getting 50% support within the party.
The obvious followup question to this observation is, was the nation better served in the days when party bosses picked someone they felt was a winnable candidate in a metaphorical smoke-filled back room?
And if you say yes to that, does that mean you support the way Utah has traditionally chosen candidates through a caucus system involving only party delegates?
Conversely, if you think the primary system is better, do also support the recent move in Utah toward more democracy — allowing candidates to get on the ballot through a petition process if they don’t pass muster with party delegates?
These are not inconsequential questions. They also aren’t easy.
In the December issue of The Atlantic, Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rauch and University of Massachusetts political science professor Ray La Raja examine how the relatively recent power shift from political insiders to primary elections has affected the types of candidates we get and the way they govern. The simple takeaway is that a system relying only on primaries leads to trouble.
“In a large field, enduring the early battles requires mobilizing a loyal faction rather than pulling together a coalition,” they wrote. But governing always requires the ability to build coalitions. That can be difficult to do if you get into office without having to develop that skill.
Rauch and La Raja quote another professor, Henry Jones Ford, who wrote about the danger of direct primaries way back in 1909. Ford acknowledged problems with back-room coronations, but said that system tended to produce candidates who knew how to govern, whereas a primary system would elevate people who mostly knew how to promote themselves. Those with the most money would tend to win “when power is conditioned upon ability to finance costly electioneering campaigns.”
But the answer isn’t as simple as to turn the nomination process back to party bosses. Rauch and La Raja also acknowledge problems with empowering those people totally.
What is needed, they argue, is a mixed system, ensuring “the full spectrum of democratic values gets attention.”
Utah may be a unique case because of the near total control of the Republican Party. Studies here have shown that the caucus system tends to under-represent women. Delegates tend to skew to the party’s extremes, which is not representative of the party’s overall membership. Some high-profile incumbents, such as the late Sen. Bob Bennett, were defeated in the convention process when polls showed they had strong public support.
And yet conventions can be springboards for strong candidates who may lack the funding to succeed in a primary-only system.
That may make the current compromise system in Utah, in which candidates may qualify for the ballot either through the convention or through a petition process, the ideal blend.
Time will tell, although so far candidates who go the petition route seem to fair better than those chosen by party insiders.
Rauch and La Raja argue that today’s political reformers spend too much energy on reforming how we vote (ranked choice vs. traditional ballots, for example), how easily we vote (mail-in balloting and same-day registrations, for example), and the fairness of voting (how districts are drawn or how donations are reported, for example). Real change would come through re-empowering, at least to an extent, the vetting of political professionals.
That’s an interesting and compelling thesis, but I can’t help thinking the real solution is at the same time both easier, and harder, than that.
Simply put, if more people would become well-informed participants in the political process, the process itself would become more representative, and the leaders more qualified. Party bosses may need to winnow a long list of candidates, but the bigger problem is that voter apathy empowers extremists.
Arousing the great, sleeping, middle of the road — not just on Election Day but in the process leading up to that — would solve so many problems.
Making that happen, particularly in a time of ease and excess, is the great challenge for democracy in our day.