This is the United STATES of America: The Primaries are the Problem!

In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential elections, the shock of Donald Trump’s surprising win has generated a flurry of initiatives to turn back the clock and rerun or overturn the election, such as Jill Stein’s failed attempt to recount the ballots in a number of key states. The most worrisome efforts – to me – have been calls to overturn the Electoral College. This worries me for two reasons. First, most critiques misunderstand the fundamental importance of the federal structure of the USA. Secondly, Electoral College reform is a red herring, since the focus should be on reforming the primaries for all political parties.

Regarding the Electoral College, the United States of America was not designed as a unitary direct democracy. We are not living in some People’s Republic of America. We have a federal structure that created institutions such as the structure of elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the Presidency that reinforced and maintained the significance of the States. It is the brilliance of these institutions that enabled the states to come together in a single united nation.

The Electoral College works to ensure that candidates for President are well advised to take into account all the states, and not only the most populous states, or for that matter, only the most populous urban areas and neglected rural and less populated areas of the country. It is true that candidates focus increasingly on the so-called ‘battle ground states’, where the vote count is expected to be closest, but all the states count at the end of the day. Direct elections, based only on the popular vote, could virtually disenfranchise many states. If you think many voters feel alienated by the results of the 2016 election, I would imagine many more alienated by direct popular votes that marginalize the voters in their states.

Take the 2016 election, for example, where Hillary Clinton won the nationwide popular vote by 2,833,220 votes. However, she won California alone by more – by 4,446, 281 votes. So if you called the election by popular vote alone, California would have disenfranchised all those red states on the map of the USA. But it is not the state totals, so much as the way in which popular votes would focus all candidates on the major urban areas, and to dismiss the rest of the country. So the Electoral College is not antiquated by the progress of democracy, but brilliant in reinforcing the USA as a federal system designed to keep all the states feeling included. The legitimacy of our institutions, such as elections, is more important than the outcome of any one election.

Even if you should want to reform the Electoral College, it would take a constitutional amendment and be ridiculously irrelevant to the 2016 Presidential election. Ergo, some otherwise reasonable people have argued that electors should exercise their right not to vote for the candidate chosen by their state electorates. I have followed debate over the Electoral College for decades and it has been discussed time and again with the one most concerning issue being that the electors in many states are not legally bound to vote for the candidate that their state sent them to elect. Books* have been written about the potential of these now called ‘faithless electors’  upsetting the results of the popular vote in states, but the possibility has been largely ignored by the realization that this would be inconceivable, tantamount to an elector determining that their judgment is better than the judgment of the voters in his or her state. Voters do not vote for a slate of electors to exercise their personal judgment as a trustee.

Yet highly respected public intellectuals, like Lawrence Lessig, are arguing that electors should do just that. I suspect it is an ends justifies the means argument. In my opinion, this would be a far greater blow to the democratic process of the USA than any election result imaginable. If you worry about the US being divided now, I cannot imagine what the reaction would be to set of Electors choosing to take the election in their own hands. Arguments that the interference of a ‘foreign power’ justifies such an action, citing allegations that that Russians hacked the members of the DNC and RNC,  is ludicrous, as it is no more than a conspiracy theory before any evidence is provided. It does not take state of the art state sponsored cyber warfare to hack into John Pedesta’s email, since he was not cautious about his passwords etc. It also reflects the degree that those harmed by leaks routinely demonise the messengers, such as WikiLeaks, to deflect attention from the message. Did claims about Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Clinton Foundation, or Russia throw the results? This is one of many debates flourishing in hindsight.

That said, the most important concern I have is that fishing for some constitutional fix to the 2016 election is a red herring. The real problem has been the dysfunctional primary elections orchestrated by all political parties. The most significant fact of this past election is that the major parties nominated candidates that had high unfavorablity ratings. Whichever candidate had won, many voters would have been upset. Could something be wrong with the ways in which the political parties choose their candidates for office? Yes, this is blindingly obvious.

There are many symptoms of this. The parties have been declining for at least the past two decades, while partisanship remains strong, such as in the degree people vote on the basis of their partisan identification. So a shrinking, less trusted, but increasingly powerful group of party members organize the primaries, and do so quite poorly. This is a problem, illustrated by the exposure of favoritism by the head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, having her ‘finger on the scales’ (to put it in the kindest way possible) from the earliest days for Hillary Clinton, and against Bernie Sanders. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we know about this tilting of the playing field. th-1

This led to her resignation, but did not prevent her re-election to the House, and it does not correct the fundamental problem with how to hold a fair and successful primary that recruits the best talent to enter the primaries.

Another key problem with the primaries, tied to the decline in party membership, is the failure of many states to let independent voters participate in the primaries. The contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was clearly shaped by which states did or did not allow independents to vote in the Democratic Primary, with Senator Sanders doing far better among independents, who were not registered Democrats.

All parties seem to have failed to organize primaries that encouraged the most talented individuals to put their hat in the ring and compete on a level playing field. The fact that the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, received about 1% of the vote, but remains the head of the Green Party, is an illustration of these problems continuing even in the marginal parties. What are they thinking?

It does not take a Constitutional Amendment to reform the primaries across the USA. And meaningful reform could be done within the coming four years. Instead of fighting the last election, and focusing on red herrings, and impossible reforms, those upset by the election process should focus on the primaries. The party primaries need to be reformed, and they can be reformed.

Have elementary schools stopped teaching basic civics? The number of pundits that seem not to have a clue about the federal structure of our nation, and the rationale behind the Electoral College, is amazing. But you don’t need to be a political scientist to see the real problems of our primary systems within each of our major parties. This should be the focus of reform.

[Postscript: It happened. Faithless Electors emerged.  Two electors were faithless to Donald Trump, and 5 were faithless to Hillary Clinton. This made no difference to the outcome, defied expectations of defections benefitting Hillary Clinton (no ‘revolt’ against Trump), and raised questions about trusting Electors in the future, as this was the first time since 1948 that there has been more than one faithless elector.**]

*For example, Robert M. Hardaway (1994), The Electoral College and the Constitution: The Case for Preserving Federalism.

**http://www.cbsnews.com/news/which-candidates-did-the-seven-faithless-electors-support-election-2016/

Vote for a Future, Not the Odds of a Horserace

I am amazed by the number of pundits that seem to believe only Clinton supporters can add numbers. Today’s New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, illustrates this in his piece entitled ‘Feel The Math’. Since his ideas repeat a very common argument, it is important to call out the problems with Krugman’s math lessons.

First, even though Krugman criticizes the horserace mentality of the media, his argument is stuck in that horserace mentality. He is such a fish in water than he doesn’t get it. His argument is that Clinton is the odds on favorite, with Sanders facing impossible odds, so get with the program, give up on Sanders, and support Clinton. He makes the odds of the race the principle reason for supporting the Clinton campaign.

The flip side of this first point, is that Krugman and others fail to understand the degree that so many of those who support Senator Sanders, as I do, believe that he has big ideas that merit support. We are registering our support for him and his ideas. Bernie’s tag line of ‘A Future We Can Believe In’ resonates with his supporters. Sanders has run a campaign on policy, and his vision of the directions we need to move on such issues as campaign finance reform, ridiculous inequities in income distribution, treating a college more like we have been treating a high school education for decades, and more. Support for Sanders is a vote in favor of his vision, his big ideas, tied into a coherent framework, versus small ideas only linked by pragmatic incrementalism.

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Secondly, Krugman and others must know that calling an election before it is over has a major impact on late voting. Television networks cannot call an election until the polls close, but this is essentially what is happening in calling an election during a rolling set of primaries. It is one thing for a candidate to decide to postpone or stop their campaign, but for the media to get behind the Democratic Party establishment and the Clinton campaign to convince Bernie Sanders to stop his campaign, or for his supporters to abandon him, is a huge mistake. In the longterm, it will rebound on trust in the media and the party, but in the short-term, it will undermine the votes for that candidate downstream. What is truly remarkable is the degree that much of Senator Sanders’ support that held up to this onslaught by the supporters of the other side, who think they are the only one’s who can do arithmetic.

Finally, it might be worth noting that Bernie Sanders is not Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton is no Barack Obama. 2016 is not 2008. The math argument always makes these analogies, saying we’ve been here before. This is a repetition of 2008. Not true. These are very different candidates, different bases of support, with very different baggage, and in a very different context. Not surprisingly, the mathematicians are poor historians.

If Hillary’s election is so inevitable – if she has the math race locked up, then what is the panic? Why the urgency in trying to sway late voters to support Hillary by making an argument based on math rather than policy and platforms. Let the primary voters in California vote on the basis of the candidates ideas, not on the odds of the horserace.

No More Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Remember when everyone was complaining about voters having no real substantive choice among candidates for office? We were faced with a problem of deciding between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, two characters from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871). I’ll post John Tenniel’s illustration. No one could tell them apart and they became a common refrain of those complaining about how all politicians moved toward similar positions to appeal to the most voters.

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These days seem to be gone, at least for now. The differences among the GOP Candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination are ‘huge’, to quote Donald Trump, and the differences between the Republicans and Democrats, even more so. Of course, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton are also very different in personality, career paths, and policy positions. Across Europe, you can see the same pattern, with populist canidates from the left and right emerging as serious contenders for seats, such as between Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen in the 2015 regional elections.

Many are worried about the rise of populist candidates, such as Donald Trump, but isn’t this what we asked for in complaining about lookalike candidates? If we trust democratic processes, might we assume this will begin to engage more people into learning about the candidates and voting in elections? Do we trust democracy?

Perhaps the viewing records for the US primary debates are symptomatic of greater voter engagement. And this makes the debates and all other aspects of the electoral process ever more critical to the future of governance in the United States and abroad. May the debates focus on generating real debates among the candidates, and not a set of serial interviews and gotcha moments, as I and Tracy Westen have been discussing in previous blogs, such as in our low grading of the Fox News-Facebook debate.

 

Grading the Fox News-Facebook GOP Presidential Debate Spectacle by Bill Dutton and Tracy Westen

The televised and Facebooked GOP debate was a disaster. The clear loser of the debates was the media, particularly Fox News and Facebook, for putting together a media event that made a mockery of televised debates. It clearly drew a large audience (over 23 million viewers), and gave some greater national visibility to some of the lesser-known candidates in the race. But these virtues are not enough to compensate for the problems showcased by this spectacle. Commentators have said they thought they were watching a Saturday Night Live spoof of the debates. But these were the real thing and closer to Hunger Games or X Factor than SNL. They include:

Producing a Horse Race

The media like to make elections into a horse race as a means to generate an audience. Nevertheless, this took the metaphor to an entirely higher level. The announcers, the staging, lighting, and build up were all about who will win and lose the race and much less to do with the issues.

The Absence of any Meaningful Debate

It was not a debate. The candidates did not have opportunities to debate issues with one another. This was an obvious challenge from the moment the debates were proposed: How can a debate deal with 17 candidates. Breaking it up into two groups, each too large did not help. More importantly, there was no debate. It was a series of long-winded gotcha questions to make the moderates look clever and tuff and the candidates squirm, and not have sufficient time to adequately respond. It was as if the moderators sought to conduct a series of one-minute David Frost Nixon interviews, but could not and did not succeed.

Childish Antics

Much was made of the child’s table for the 7 excluded from the adult table, but the entire debate was childish. The very idea of asking the candidates to raise their hand in response to the moderator’s question was ridiculously childish. Every candidate should have raised their hand, or left the stage. How patronizing and silly, and this was the beginning of the show.

Moderator-Pundit Centric

The stars of this program were the moderators and the pundits they asked to praise their work at the end of the debate, and pronounce the winners and losers. The candidates should have been at the center, not the moderators. All the ‘experts’ questioned by the moderators were falling over themselves to praise the moderators’ questions, and play along with the seriousness of this fiasco.

Advertising and Sponsor Bias

The ‘debates’ also showcased Fox News and Facebook. This was all about advertising. Fox News has a reputation for biased news coverage. Facebook has no reputation at all for staging a political debate. The combination was a disaster. Did you notice how a critical question about ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo!’ did not mention Facebook?

Three Standards for Grading the Televised Debates

On what criteria can we grade the Fox News-Facebook show? To address that, it is worth asking: Why do we want debates, what value do they offer, and why the Fox debates failed to satisfy those needs.

Voters want at least three things out of a debate. They want to know: Where do candidates stand on the issues? Do they have presidential personalities (smart, trustworthy, competent leadership, compassion, integrity, etc.)? And what do other respected individuals and organizations think of them (endorsements, party affiliations, etc.)?

Issues

The Fox format certainly didn’t allow the viewers an opportunity to understand and compare the candidates on key issues. Climate change, for example, was never mentioned. Foreign policy was virtually ignored (except immigration). Domestic economic policy was not significantly explored, although it was mentioned by a few. Educational policy was briefly referenced (“Common Core,” states’ rights), but nothing significant emerged. In short, it is doubtful that viewers, after more than two hours of back and forth, came away with any clear sense of where their candidates stood on many of the most important issues facing the nation. Actually, there may be better methods of exploring candidates’ positions on issues — such as text and analysis. But a debate should allow a moderator, or opposing candidates, to challenge a candidate’s position on specific issues, dig into them, and ultimately explain them more clearly to the audience. During the Fox debate, for example, Scott Walker was asked why he would rather let a mother die than sacrifice a fetus to an abortion. That was a powerful question. Not surprisingly, Walker didn’t answer it, and the questioner didn’t follow up or point out that Walker didn’t answer. So the debate failed to raise many significant issues, and it failed to create an opportunity for the viewer to learn candidates’ positions.

Personalities

Debates may excel at revealing candidates’ personalities: Are they are good speakers? Can they think on their feet? Do they have persuasive answers to difficult questions? Have they thought through their answers intelligently so they are coherent and persuasive? Do they speak with energy and are they persuasive? Do they exhibit leadership qualities, and more? The Fox debate was minimally successful at that for some candidates: It allowed viewers to get a better sense of Trump, for better or worse. It showed the speaking style of many of the candidates. But it was so fragmentary, jumped around so much, and asked two candidates the same question, but then turned to other questions, that it failed almost entirely to give the candidates a chance to show the viewers “who they were.”

Endorsements

Apart from revealing that all the candidates were Republicans, except possibly Trump, it’s not clear that viewers learned anything of the candidates’ supporters.

The Grade

One might easily conclude, therefore, that this debate, according to the three criteria listed above, should probably receive a grade of D+. Although debates have the potential to enlighten voters, this one certainly failed significantly in that regard.

 What can be done?

The news media in one fell swoop seem to have lost the credibility to manage or produce a televised or social media debate. What could be done to salvage this election?

First, any future televised debate must have more involvement of the candidates in the design of the debate format and production. Candidates could not have been involved in staging this Fox News debate, as it is hard to imagine them agreeing to such a terrible arrangement.

Secondly, there is a need to shift debates away from commercial television and social media to avoid this dumbing down of debates into an X Factor spectacle. Some not for profit organizations have led in the development of Internet-based debate platforms in the past, such as the Center for Governmental Studies, with its work on The Democracy Network (DNet), but this would require major foundation funding that could only be assembled in the longer-term. A new debate platform for the Internet could be developed, but in addition to funding, it would require work, creativity, experimentation, a budget sizeable enough to try different ideas, and a willingness to stick it out until it worked, for it to be successful in an age of streaming video. In the meantime, Secretary of State voter information websites could be enlisted to use more up-to-date Internet techniques and applications that would allow candidates to post videos, endorsements, etc. (See “Voter Information in the Digital Age: Grading State Election Websites,” which Tracy Westen co-authored — http://cgs.policyarchive.org) might be a transition. Alternatively, PBS could pioneer some work in this area on its websites.

Thirdly, there might be a case to move away from an emphasis on debates to focus more attention on voters, and opinion leaders among the voters, to inform themselves. With today’s technology, voters can be urged to source their own material, and not look to televised debates to clarify the issues or understand the candidates. Any voter with access to the Internet, whether directly or through a family member or friend, can source their own information. What does candidate x think about issue y? A voter driven process, focused on voters that are motivated to seek information, could inform an electorate in ways far less driven by media entertainment values and formats.

Someone will have to figure out (i) how to cater to the various voter strategies and meet the desires of voters for information in various formats; (ii) figure out how to make money out of online presidential debates; and (iii) promote the new approach enough until it takes hold, without sinking to creating a media circus like that used by Fox News and Facebook for the GOP debates.