Boston College Political Science Professors David Hopkins, Marc Landy, and Shep Melnick fielded questions about the current United States primary system during an informal discussion held last Wednesday evening.
The discussion began with Melnick providing context for not only the 2020 presidential primary race, but also the larger historical contexts for presidential primaries.
“Just to give an indication of the mess we’re in: the leading Democratic candidate has never called himself a Democrat,” Melnick said. “The Republican president, until 2016, didn’t consider himself a Republican.”
To further illustrate the “chaos” of the 2020 presidential primary, Melnick highlighted that South Bend, Indiana mayor, Pete Buttigieg, has more political experience than most of the candidates running. Another candidate became a Democrat only recently.
The extremes that voters see in terms of qualifications, experience, and switching party allegiance date back to rule changes that occurred in the time period between 1968 and 1972.
“Political scientists [have been saying] this is going to lead to extreme candidates being nominated,” Melnick explained.
Although that theory took a long time to manifest, with the dawn of social media and the loosening of control by party bosses, those extreme candidates are beginning to present themselves during election cycles.
After Melnick’s overarching summary of the system, Hopkins explained the specific differences between the Democratic and Republican Systems.
Only the Democrats use superdelegates, party leaders who make up 15% of all allocated delegates to the convention. However, after a 2016 rule change, superdelegates can only vote if the convention goes to a second ballot. In the first round vote on the convention floor, superdelegates will play no role.
In addition to the formal rules of the Democratic primary process, there are also informal rules that govern candidate strategy and how the public follows the race.
“The current nomination process gives a lot of power to the news media,” Hopkins said. “The way that the news media covers the candidates, their choices about who to give lots of coverage to, who to give positive versus negative coverage to really affects how voters think.”
The role of the media increases during primary season because there are a lot of candidates, most of whom are not nationally known, running in a party’s primary. Voters do not have strong preferences yet and are easily influenced by the narrative the media decides on.
“What they [the media] say about the competition actually has an effect on the competition itself,” Hopkins stated.
Landy then took the conversation to a more global perspective, highlighting the international struggle between the left and the right playing out across countries like Italy, Germany, France, and Great Britain.
“The center doesn’t seem to be holding,” Landy said. “The only centrist government that I can think of that’s really solid is Japan.”
After the introduction, all three professors opened the floor up for questions on the state of the primary.
One of the first questions asked was about how the lack of turnout in the primaries might affect turnout in the general election.
“I don’t know how much to make of it,” Hopkins started.
He attributed the turnout levels to the fact that the field is incredibly crowded, no one has built a huge coalition, and most people are ambivalent at this stage of the primary.
“Usually the presidential race is the biggest national story,” Hopkins explained. “This time we had an impeachment. We have a president who makes news constantly. There just isn’t the same attention being paid to the race.”
Melnick pointed out that while turnout for the Democrats was barely keeping pace with 2016, Republican turnout has been bigger than expected for a primary where Donald Trump is running against an unknown candidate.
An audience member commented on the realignment happening in both parties, asking, “when do you think this is going to be over?”
Landy quickly answered that the realignment would depend on the result of this election.
Both Hopkins and Landy commented on the idea that whichever side of the party won the primary—either the moderates or the left—would face the consequences of losing the general election.
If Bernie Sanders won the primary but lost the general election, the left wing of the party would face major backlash and would not be able to run in a general election for a considerable time. Conversely, if a moderate wins the nomination but loses the general election, they will face a similar backlash.
Another audience member asked, “if the DNC and the Democrats as a party can survive legitimately as an institution,” if there was a contested convention.
Hopkins said it would depend on the math of the convention.
Landy pointed out that, “there are worse things than losing this election.”
“There’s an election in 2024. This has happened at various times, seasoned politicians have just said, ‘let him have it.’ It happened in ‘64 on the Republican side. I don’t think you want to steal the nomination from Bernie Sanders,” he concluded.
One audience member commented on the common theme of populism and the anti-elitist strain that Melnick and Landy had been talking about during their answers.
He asked if they thought that it was, “at all tied to a belief that the promises of liberalism have not been met, or do you see it more as just [an] ‘oh these darn elites’ question?”
“I think there’s just a very powerful feeling that the best educated, the people [on] the coast, the people who inhabit the most elite institutions, have no interest in what these folks would say are ordinary people,” Landy answered.
Melnick pointed out that distrust of elites was, “endemic of democracies,” according to Tocqueville.
“It’s also fueled by all kinds of forms of dislocation—dislocation caused by globalization, global trade, immigration,” Melnick said.
Voters will next weigh in at the Nevada caucus on February 22nd.