For anyone concerned about democratic norms and the rule of law, the 2016 election offered a clear lesson: Parties need to exercise more control over candidate selection. In this era of high partisanship, the official party nomination puts any candidate within striking distance of the presidency. This great power thus carries a profound responsibility: to deny the party endorsement to would-be demagogues. So why are Democrats reducing the role of party elites in the primary process this time around?
The changes Democrats have made to the nomination process were prompted by Hillary Clinton’s win over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. That victory generated accusations that her campaign was coordinating with the Democratic National Committee to rig the nomination contest. Wary of such charges, the party has since scaled back its influence over the primary process. First, so-called superdelegates — party leaders and elected officials — were stripped of their power to decide a closely contested nomination on the first ballot at the party convention. These elites had previously played an important role in the nominating process; though they typically supported the candidate who won the nomination via primary and caucus victories, their presence helped make support from party elites an important factor in the primary campaign.
Democrats should know better than to diminish their control over their own nomination process.
Democrats also yielded to pressure to open access to presidential debates. In fact, they’ve now promised to include any candidate with 65,000 donors on the debate stage, in addition to those with qualifying levels of polling support. Not surprisingly, this rule is already being gamed: Recently, the Washington Post reported that John Delaney, a wealthy former member of Congress, is matching $1 donations with $2 contributions to charity to try to attract enough support to be included despite having no measurable support in polls.
This debate inclusion rule is shortsighted. Should the self-help guru Marianne Williamson be included on stage with Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren if she attracts enough donations? Her staff claims she’s likely to qualify. And as Politico’s Bill Scher points out, loathsome figures, like David Duke, might be able to raise enough donations to participate as well. What would Democrats do then? In a world of ubiquitous small-dollar fundraising, 65,000 donors might not be an insurmountable threshold for fringe candidates.