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Presidential Nominations From 1976 to the Present

dem convention

Delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

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The McGovern-Fraser Commission, appointed in the wake of the 1968 Democratic nomination, met over the years leading up to the 1972 Democratic national convention, where its report was proposed and approved.  It addressed a number of different concerns, but most of the important changes affected how delegates to the convention were to be selected by the Democratic Party. 

Its primary goal was to have greater involvement of Democrats in the public in party business, including selecting national convention delegates.  To do so, it recommended that the state parties make greater use of the caucus – a convention method of selecting delegates.  In practice, however, it placed sufficient restrictions on these procedures that many state parties decided it was easier to comply with the reforms by adopting presidential primaries that typically were not designed and conducted by the state party organization but by the state government. 

A further consequence was that since these required state laws to enact, many of the states passed primary election laws that could be used by both parties.  Thus, without directly tackling these reforms, Republican state parties also increased their use of the primary as a way to select delegates to their conventions. 

In this way, presidential nomination campaigns became campaigns in and to the public, a way to get the party members in the public to vote for their nomination.  This went along with reforms of campaign finance procedures to make it in presidential contestants’ interest to raise money in public-oriented campaigns, including from “small” donors (and sometimes from very large numbers of people giving small donations). 

With all of this action going on in the public, the media -- especially the major national news media (in those days, newspapers and broadcast media especially television) -- devoted considerable resources to covering the major presidential campaigns.  The result was a national campaign for votes, for money and for media attention.  Each tends to feed on the other.  The more votes a candidate gets, the easier to raise money.  The richer the campaign in votes and dollars, the more interested reporters are in covering that campaign, which makes it easier to attract even more votes and money, and so on, round and round.

Because voters in the various states were selecting delegates to attend the national conventions, voting was indirectly about the presidential candidates as they sought to assure the selection of delegates who were required to -- and likely who wanted to -- vote for them.  There were 100 of these state-level events and they consisted of state government-run primary elections or state party organization-run caucuses and conventions.  The rules for these state-level events (plus others, such as for DC and elsewhere) can be -- and generally are -- at least somewhat different from one another. 

One consequence is that presidential campaigns need to pay very careful attention to the rules and procedures, to make sure they take full opportunity to compete effectively for every available delegate.  One common assertion, although hard to demonstrate factually, is that the Obama campaign in 2008 ran the better organized campaign in this regard, and that the Clinton campaign may have failed to capture its full potential in every state, possibly enough to tip the balance in what was an unusually close contest.  

One even more important consequence of this system is that the 100 events are spread out over months, from January or February until June of the election year.  That primaries and caucuses are spread out over four or more months means that the presidential contests are highly dynamic – they can change dramatically over time.  In 2007, Clinton appeared to have a large lead and appeared nearly unassailable, while John McCain’s campaign on the Republican side foundered dramatically and his lead was gone before the Iowa caucuses.  The Obama campaign, of course, came from nearly nowhere to challenge Clinton, win early contests, and settle in to a close, lengthy two-candidate race that took until the very end of the nomination season to resolve.  McCain, however, recovered from his 2007 slump and began an ever-increasingly strong campaign for the nomination that, only part way through the delegate selection process, proved indeed to be unassailable. 

It is common to refer to this dynamic of shifting fortunes as “momentum.”  It is so called because it was a term brought into primary campaign politics from Monday Night Football, mimicking announcer “Dandy Don” Meredith’s use of the saying that “Ol’ Mo” has turned, such that momentum now favors the other team.  As best I can recall, it was a term first used by George H.W. Bush in 1980.  The idea is that the shifting events induce the dynamic of votes, money and media.

“Momentum” is, perhaps, the central feature of nomination campaigns.  In the 1970s, when the system first went into place, news media naturally enough anticipated that campaigns that attracted large numbers of plausible candidates would not be resolved in the primary campaign season, but only at a “brokered convention (i.e., one in which party leaders would work behind the scenes to determine who is nominated). 

Campaigns can indeed be crowded.  The average is eight candidates running for contests without an incumbent president, often with many more seriously considering running or announcing their candidacy but dropping out before the Iowa caucuses.  Some candidates would win lots of delegates from some states, this argument went, while other candidates would gather support from other states, and what was the chance that one candidate could win a majority of delegates in such a crowded field?  It turned out that the chances were very good, indeed.  Every campaign has been decided before the convention began, and there is a strong correlation that the larger the number of candidates, the more quickly one gathers a majority of delegates.