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By Jay Cost

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The Party System and the 2008 Campaign

The following is the text of the address I delivered on Thursday, May 1st at Princeton University, at a conference entitled "The American Electoral Process," sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics.

First of all, I'd like to thank Professor Larry Bartels and the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics for extending an invitation to me to participate today.

I'd like to respond to our headline question, "2008: Where We've Been and Where We're Going," by discussing the national party organizations - and their capacity to manage an election like this.

This has been a terrific nomination contest. Edifying, exciting, a few sharp elbows thrown, but not too many. Above all, it looks like the public will have a clear choice between two distinct political visions come November. Hopefully, this campaign will yield meaningful election results from which the victor can claim a mandate to move the country forward.

However, this process has also exposed some weaknesses in our democratic institutions. Specifically, it is clear that the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have been unable to manage their nomination processes. The RNC will probably pay no consequence for its impotence this year, but the DNC might. Its weakness might ultimately contribute to a brokered convention that would diminish its nominee's capacity to conduct a spirited fall campaign.

Let's step back and think about these national committees in general terms. This should provide some context for understanding the drama that has unfolded on cable news.

The purpose of these primaries is to secure the party's nomination. However, the nomination itself is only a means to an end - namely, victory in November. If a nominee has acquired the prize by a Pyrrhic victory, he or she might be at a disadvantage in the fall - and all who value the party's success will be worse off.

This implies that everybody in the party has a collective interest in a nomination battle that is efficient - one in which the nominee is selected with minimal cost to his or her general election prospects. The goals are therefore speediness and bloodlessness. The nominee should be chosen reasonably quickly so that he or she may pivot to the general campaign. Furthermore, the nominee's reputation should not be unduly damaged by the nomination battle.

Of course, the collective interests of a group often conflict with the personal interests of those within it. In those instances, individuals might pursue their immediate and tangible personal interests over the distant and hazy group interests. Thus, it is helpful to have a central authority with the power to induce individuals to support the collective good.

Ideally, this is the task of the RNC and the DNC. They are charged with managing their conventions, and by extension the nomination processes, to an efficient conclusion. However, they lack the power to constrain the actions of those within their respective parties. Instead, candidates, state parties, state governments, miscellaneous politicians, and interest groups can and do choose their personal good over the party's public good.

The national party organizations have never been powerful - and in the modern nomination era, their powerlessness has rarely been a problem. In most years, a frontrunner acquires an early, insurmountable lead, and the interests of the candidate and the party merge. In this candidate-centered age of politics, the presumptive nominee typically has the power to ensure that his interests are secured. This is essentially what has happened on the GOP side this year.

Meanwhile, there is no nominee on the Democratic side. There is instead a close race that the DNC cannot manage. The movers and shakers in the party have acted for the sake of their own interests, rather than the party as a whole. And so, the Democrats face the possibility of a brokered convention.

A few examples illustrate this point.

Last year, the DNC mandated that states and territories schedule their primaries or caucuses between February and June. However, it lacked the authority to enforce the mandate efficiently. When Michigan and Florida defied the DNC - the committee stripped them of their delegates. Unfortunately, this did not induce them to re-schedule, nor did it induce all candidates to remove themselves from all relevant ballots.

Obviously, Florida and Michigan were not motivated by the collective good of the Democratic Party. Quite unsurprisingly, they acted out of their own best interests. They wanted more influence in the process, as well as the economic benefits that accrue to the states with that privilege.

In another year, this story would have been an inconsequential footnote. The nominee would have been chosen quickly, and Florida and Michigan's delegates would have participated in the meaningless festivities of the convention. But there is no nominee yet, and there might not be one before the convention. In that case, there might be a showdown in the DNC's credentials committee over Michigan and Florida.

This poses two problems. First, this controversy might be enough for Clinton to perpetuate her fight to the convention - especially if she finishes strong. This, in turn, would distract Obama from preparing for the general election. Second, there might be confusion over who is the legitimate choice of the Democratic Party. Obama currently has a lead in pledged delegates and votes. However, factoring in Florida and Michigan will reduce the former and might eliminate the latter. It is conceivable that, after Democrats finish voting, both Clinton and Obama might be able to claim that they are the true choice of the party.

So, the DNC has been unable to manage the state parties, the state governments, and the candidates efficiently. Each has angled for its own good - and the good of the party is now in jeopardy.

Another difficulty comes with the superdelegates. These are elected Democrats, party luminaries, and party committee members who are guaranteed votes at the convention.

Ideally, there is some utility to the superdelegates. They effectively imply that a nominee must win a "super majority" of the pledged delegates to acquire the nomination. Thus, they can serve as a certification of the primary results.

However, the DNC places no constraints upon them. They are free to do whatever they like whenever they like. This year, this poses three distinct problems.

First, there is nothing to induce them to decide at any time prior to the first ballot on the convention floor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have seen a large portion of them hold back from endorsing one candidate or another. They seem to be waiting to move when the personal risks are minimal. As a consequence, the nomination battle drags on - and the last month has been very rough on the front running Obama.

Second, there is nothing that binds them to their endorsements. We saw this morning that former DNC chairman Joe Andrew switched his endorsement from Clinton to Obama to bring about a speedy end to the nomination. Ironically, Andrew's ability to switch his support might prolong the battle. Obama is closing Clinton's superdelegate lead now. If Clinton is ultimately able to make a credible claim that she is the choice of Democrats nationwide, what is to stop these superdelegates from returning to Clinton?

Third, there are no rules to guide the choices of the superdelegates. They can decide on whatever grounds they like. Thus, they could make the nomination process even more incoherent than it already is - as the collective choice of the superdelegates is merely an aggregation of irreconcilable individual motivations. If some choose based on electability, some choose based on legitimacy, some choose based on constituent instructions, and some choose based on personal preferences - the party risks a nominee who has acquired the nomination by seemingly arbitrary means.

All three of these issues imply confusion and delay. Howard Dean has said that he wants the superdelegates to decide by early June. This may in fact happen. Unfortunately, the absence of boundaries placed upon them mean that it might not happen, or that - even if it does happen - the event will be meaningless, as the apparent loser vows to try to flip the superdelegates to his or her side.

None of this implies that the convention will necessarily be brokered. There is a good chance it will not be - that Obama will find a way to push Clinton out prior to August. The point is that, for Democrats, the risk that it will be brokered is far too high. What is more, this is needless risk. There is no benefit the party receives for the risk of a brokered convention.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, it is too late for this cycle to intervene. Events will play out however they will - little can be done. However, I think this cycle provides an opportunity for both parties to think proactively about the next cycle, to consider strengthening their national party committees. Why not grant them the authority to control their own destinies, to manage their collective interests? It seems to me that such self-control would be a marked improvement over what we have now. I certainly think that - if Howard Dean had some real power to control those within his party's coalition - the Democrats would be in much less jeopardy.

Minimally, I would make the following suggestion. At its core, the current nomination system is a disjointed hybrid of the old, state party-centered way of choosing nominees and the new way that places power with rank-and-file partisans. The reforms of the 1970s did not amount to root-and-branch changes, but rather 20th century updates to a 19th century system.

Perhaps this accounts for the powerlessness of the national committees. They are tasked with bringing coherence to an incoherent system. I would suggest that whatever changes are made - whether the national parties are strengthened or not - the goal should be to impose coherence of form and purpose. Right now, both processes have one foot in the past and one foot in the present. This is, I think, unsustainable in the long run.

Thank you.

-Jay Cost