I recall two landslide losses by presidential candidates: Barry Goldwater’s loss to Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern’s loss to Richard Nixon. In both cases, the loser in the general election had ridden a wave of grassroots support to win his party’s nomination over an “Establishment” candidate. While we don’t know if Rockefeller could have beat Johnson, or Humphrey beat Nixon, the result almost certainly would have been much closer.
Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, has written a fairly perceptive piece on the possibility of Donald Trump’s becoming the Republican nominee in 2016. He points out that party organizations now have little say in who gets nominated and that the media no longer enjoy the respect which once made them effective when they pointed out the flaws and falsehoods of candidates. He notes, “A growing number of Americans have become convinced the entire system is rigged – including the major parties, the media, and anyone honored by the establishment.” The result is that “now it’s just the candidates and the public, without anything in between.” There is no need to advance reasoned, thoughtful proposals. Demagogic sound bites seem to be enough to get the publicity that will translate into votes from the like-minded.
None of this happened overnight. It has developed slowly over decades.
At one time there was more variety in the ways convention delegates were selected. Some states had primaries, which might or might not bind delegates to vote for the voter-preferred candidate. Others had state conventions to select national convention delegates. Those who attended the conventions were often the self-nominated local party committee members. The process wasn’t always winner-take-all: states might send delegations that were divided among the candidates they favored. Thus the system gave party officials a considerable amount of power over the result.
Primaries are now much more widespread as a result, it seems to me, of a movement, largely supported by the left wing, for what they conceived as greater democracy. Ironically, it is the party officials who are more concerned with winning elections than ideological purity — whereas ordinary voters tend to care more about a candidate’s ideology than his electability — and in that way, they actually promote the democracy of offering candidates with the broadest possible appeal to the electorate as a whole.
Another change has been the way the public understands the campaigns and the conventions. When I was a boy, it was clearly understood that the national conventions were where the party’s nominee would be chosen and that the purpose of the preceding campaigns was to amass as many convention delegates as possible. But, except when the party had an incumbent president who was running for reelection, there was no expectation that any candidate would arrive at the convention with enough delegates to secure the nomination. There would be negotiations in “smoke-filled rooms” as campaign managers attempted to gain the support of enough other candidates to gain the nomination. Now, the clear expectation is that well before the convention happens one candidate will have the votes necessary to be nominated. This shift has been promoted by the media’s focus on polling results and corresponding neglect of delegate counts. The result is that having a lead in the polls is seen as a sign of the inevitability of a candidate’s nomination. There is also a certain “bandwagon effect,” with people abandoning possible “kingmakers,” in order to go with a winner. Nowadays candidates tend drop out even if there is still a possibility that they could be part of a coalition that could stop a front-runner.
The media’s loss of influence is much less complex. There is a difference between honest reporting on a candidate’s positions and “attack journalism.” It seems that with Watergate, the media’s understanding of their job went from factual reporting to bringing down the “bad guys” by finding and printing whatever negative things they could find about those “bad guys.” As it became increasingly clear to the public that the media were taking sides, of course they lost the respect they had when they were thought to be disinterested reporters, presenting facts with no attempt to slant the reporting.
What this all adds up to, as I see it, is that changing mechanisms for selecting convention delegates and a changing media approach to journalism — both of which I’d guess Secretary Reich liked — have, along with changing public attitudes toward the process (fostered by the media), led to the situation we now have where Donald Trump, because he leads in the polls, is considered a likely nominee for President. As I’ve noted, insurgencies have succeeded before, generally with unfortunate results for the party in question, but it seems easier to mount one now.
One final note: the “Tea Party” wing of the Republican Party regularly excoriates more moderate Republicans and those who are willing to make compromises to get desirable legislation as RINO’s: Republicans In Name Only. In doing so they falsely claim that only their ideology exists within the Republican Party, and they ignore the fact that the purpose of parties is to win elections, not to be ideologically pure. To win elections, it is often necessary to create broad coalitions of people who are not like-minded on all issues. To place ideological purity ahead of electoral success is truly to be a RINO, so it is these rule-or-ruin Tea Partiers, not the ones they accuse, who deserve the label.
Still to come: some thoughts on why Donald Trump’s candidacy has gained so much support, despite his lack of the normal qualifications for the presidency.