Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil

The presidential campaigns are getting closer to the choice of party nominees, but many people say they are unhappy about the most likely outcome.

Party rules and relatively few voters are responsible for the likely matchup between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

This possible choice results from the demise of the “smoke-filled room” in which a handful of party bosses picked the party’s nominee. They would pick the person who would best help them hold onto or increase their local power.

These power brokers could deliver delegates at the party’s national convention. They doled out public sector jobs or supplied social benefits and, in return, were repaid by the loyalty of convention delegates. A few people could deliver large blocks of delegates, often enough to pick the nominee.

Of course, there were times when conventions were deadlocked, and the bosses had to make deals about federal appointments and even policies to reach an agreement.

The smoke filled room began to lose its role as people who were more policy oriented than patronage dependent became politically active. And, increasingly the exclusion of women and African-Americans became unacceptable.

Finally, the Democrats decided to change the delegate selection process. Delegates to national conventions would be selected in primary elections or caucuses. Ordinary party members could gain control of the delegation selection process, ending boss control.

It became impossible for the Republican Party to resist this tide of change and it, too, adopted voter selection of its nominee.

But something went wrong. The open process for delegate selection has not worked in practice as well as in theory. While the bosses were mostly gone, the process was not left to the mass of all party voters. It fell to a relatively small group of them.

It turned out that many people who registered in a political party had little interest in actively participating in party affairs. They might vote in a primary for state or local office, but their party identification probably indicated alignment with party policy or a specific candidate more than an interest in activism.

The open process proved to be an attraction mainly to party members with strong ideological motivation. The Democratic Party process became heavily influenced by strong liberals and the Republican Party by strong conservatives.

The problem would turn out to be the weak representation of others who were less strongly committed to the parties. While they form the majority of the electorate in November, they can find themselves forced to choose between candidates supporting agendas with limited appeal to them.

Donald Trump may be changing the calculation. Turnout for the GOP primaries has shot up, partly because of the large number of candidates and partly thanks to Trump’s appeal to people who normally scorn politics. But, even with relatively high GOP turnouts, Trump is winning with the support of less than 10 percent of general election voters.

The Democrats have backed away somewhat from the purely open process. A modern version of the party boss, people with a deep stake in the party, was adopted.

These are the so-called super delegates, who get their slots because they hold public office or are committed party officials. In both cases, they give a lot of time and effort to their party. Like the old-time bosses, they care about having a candidate at the top of the ticket who will help other party candidates.

Their weight can influence the party’s choice. Hillary Clinton has about 90 percent of the declared super delegates, leaving Bernie Sanders with a huge uphill challenge from the start of the campaign.

A few steps could improve the process for selecting party nominees. The GOP might adopt its own version of super delegates, giving its party officials and office holders a bigger role.

And both parties would benefit from fewer, larger primary and caucus days. The confusing flood of elections may discourage participation and it certainly gives too much weight to the Iowa caucuses, notable for their small turnout, and the New Hampshire primaries, which allow independents into party votes.

Finally, the November voters need to start participating in the nominee selection process. Too many people, unhappy about their choices, are unwilling to vote in a primary or give a couple of hours every four years to a caucus.

In Maine, the GOP caucuses (one to three per county) are on Saturday, and the Democrats meet (in almost every town) on Sunday. Voters should take a minute, find the caucus time and location and show up.


Gordon Weil is a former public official. He lives in Harpswell.

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