Do voters want to hear from party leaders? Some intriguing new polling

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden addresses supporters as Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) looks on at his South Carolina primary night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

What happened in this year’s Democratic nominating contest? To the surprise of many, a relatively moderate establishment candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, won. Why didn’t the Democratic primary process in 2020 follow the chaotic course that the Republican process took in 2016? Why did the party establishment prevail? An important new paper by the political scholars Zachary Albert (of Brandeis University) and Raymond J. La Raja (of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) offers insights, and busts a handful of myths along the way. Here are the highlights.

This will come as a surprise to the activists who have waged war on the establishment and on superdelegates, but voters want parties and experts to play a role in the nominating process. Conventional wisdom holds that American voters dislike the political parties and don’t trust them to pick candidates. Wasn’t that why, 50 years ago, we switched to direct nomination by the voters (something no other major democracy regularly does)?

Not so fast. For all of U.S. history—and until the process broke down just a few years ago, especially in the Republican Party—party insiders have guided the nomination process, sharing power with the voters.

And it turns out that that is still what most Americans want. In a poll, Albert and La Raja asked voters how they think nominating responsibility should be allocated among voters, party leaders, and non-party experts. The average respondent wanted to allot more than a third of the influence to party pros and experts. Only a small share (14 percent) wanted only voters to decide, without party or expert input. In other words, the public wants what the country has traditionally had: a mixed system in which insiders and professionals work alongside voters.

More evidence that the public welcomes party influence: respondents wanted party voters to have twice as much say in party nominations as independent voters. In other words, the public believes that party loyalists should have a privileged (though not exclusive) voice—a view that most political scientists agree with.

Second, minorities, women, young people, and moderates are more likely to prefer a mixed system. Analyzing their survey results, the authors divide respondents into two main categories: “populists,” who think voters should dominate the nominating process, versus “pluralists,” who want to spread influence more broadly and want no one group of influencers to dominate.

Their findings? Compared with the pluralists, the populists are more strongly partisan, more highly involved and knowledgeable, more ideological, and more extreme. They are also older, whiter, and more male. Minorities, women, young people, and people who are less partisan and extreme are more interested in sharing power with party pros and experts.

That stands to reason. After all, people who show up in primaries (especially in non-presidential years) tend to be more extreme, partisan, and focused on politics. Direct primaries amplify their voice, a position which they guard jealously. People who have less interest or wherewithal to focus on politics seem more likely to delegate decision-making to influencers they trust.

Third, Democrats and Republicans are not alike. Obviously, they vote differently, but Albert and La Raja notice other asymmetries. For one, Republicans are more “populist” (in the authors’ sense), inasmuch as they want primary voters to have more of the power. Democrats seem more willing to let parties and insiders play their traditional organizing and coalition-building roles. Also, while fierce partisans in both camps tend toward the populist end of the spectrum, it’s for different reasons: Democrats, because they want to curtail the power of the party establishment; Republicans, because they want to keep the party establishment ideologically pure.

In both parties, the authors write, “populists appear to be ideologically extreme. More precisely, they are partisans who believe their party is too moderate.” But, they add, “this dynamic is asymmetrically strong for Republicans. … Republicans appear to be the more populist party, at least with respect to nomination decisions.”

Taken together, the results add some texture to this year’s Democratic nominating contest. Democratic voters, especially minorities (African-Americans above all), are more willing than Republican voters to work with the pros and experts, who saw the relatively moderate Biden as the strongest contender against President Trump. The endorsement of Biden by Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) sent a powerful signal to African-American voters in his state and throughout the country. And the Democrats have preserved more of a mixed system than did the Republicans. That is partly because of their rules on delegate allocation and superdelegates, to be sure. But it is also because Democrats want a more mixed system than Republicans do.

In a Brookings paper published before the primary season began in Iowa, La Raja and I argued the case for giving professionals a stronger voice. We said the Democratic primary process was vulnerable to the same kind of chaos that subsumed the Republicans in 2016. “As was also true for the Republicans four years ago, odds are on the side of a less chaotic outcome. Importantly, however, nothing in the process guarantees one. The same forces which hijacked and disrupted the Republican process are hard at work on the Democratic side—now and in the future.”

In the early weeks, the Democrats’ contest appeared to be firmly on the chaos track: headed toward a fractured field, a disruptive insurgency, and even a contested convention. Then, partly thanks to the decisive intervention of African-American voters in South Carolina and the timely withdrawal of several candidates, the process jumped to the more traditional “Party Decides” track as the party rallied to the establishment choice.

But it was a close call. Chaos, disruption, and factional capture still lurk out there menacingly, especially if the parties do not strengthen their ability to organize their fields and, as Elaine Kamarck has argued, peer-review their candidates. The good news from Albert and La Raja is that the public is far more receptive to that message than conventional wisdom would have you believe.

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