At the end of the invisible primary
JOHNSTON, IOWA -- I’m checking in from Iowa, where I have been attending the fascinating Shambaugh Iowa Caucus conference at the University of Iowa, as well as seeing some of the presidential candidates and following some of the campaign activists and staffers as they travel across the state trying to get everyone ready for the caucuses tonight.
Today is the last day of the invisible primary. I recognize that definitions may vary on this, but what I mean is that today is the last day that the party, broadly speaking, is working on the 2020 presidential nomination without the direct input of Democratic voters and caucusgoers. The rank-and-file gets a much louder voice starting tonight, but up until now, it’s been about the insiders.
It’s worth considering what the Democratic Party has achieved already without any direct voter input. In the middle of last year there were at least 24 presidential candidates competing for the Democratic nomination. Depending on how you count them, there may have been nearly 40 candidates competing. There are now 11. No one voted those other candidates off the island. They simply responded to the signals they were getting from donors, potential endorsers, vague polling results, pundits, and others.
I’m not necessarily endorsing all of those winnowing decisions. Some of the candidates who have dropped out were of very high caliber, but this is the nature of the process of narrowing things down to just one nominee.
It’s also worth reflecting on just how much effort is devoted toward picking one person for one job. There is an absurd amount of focus on the presidency in this country, considering the thousands of other elected positions that will be on ballots across the country later this year. People have spent three years, hundreds of millions of dollars, untold millions of labor hours, and countless hours of TV air time to focus on this race so far, all without any voters weighing in.
It’s worth considering what the Democratic Party has achieved already without any direct voter input.
Undoubtedly the presidency is very powerful and has become even more powerful in recent decades as Congress has ceded more authority to it and as the size of the federal bureaucracy and its reach into Americans' daily lives has grown. So yes, the choice of the presidency does matter. And in particular, the way Donald Trump runs his presidency makes the presidency matter a great deal on a psychological level. The presidency, and especially this President, affects people‘s moods in a way that other offices and officeholders simply do not. But it’s hard to see the amount of effort devoted to the presidential race by itself is anything but excessive.
That being said, the focus on the presidency is a great way to see a party doing the things a party does, making decisions and picking a nominee. The American party system is typically very fragmented into different states and counties, but when the parties are picking presidential nominees they are functioning as national organizations, and it is fascinating to watch all the different aspects of the party attempt to reach a collective decision. As we’ve seen, it is not an easy task. Quite a few factions within the party very much do not want to work with the others. Remember when Julián Castro mocked Joe Biden for being old, or when Elizabeth Warren tried to label Pete Buttigieg as the Wine Cave candidate? The things that will be said and done over the next few weeks and months will make those moments look quaint.
I don’t have much Iowa-related material to share that readers haven’t seen elsewhere. I’ll just note that the advertising here is intense, people are extremely energetic and focused, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a presidential candidate or a journalist. But one thing that has struck me about the conversations here is the combination of pragmatism and sincerity, enabled by Iowa’s intricate caucus system. Yes, Democrats here, like everywhere, are obsessed with electability, but there’s no consensus on which candidate is the most electable, and people still have preferences among the candidates.
What caucusgoers can do that primary voters can’t is make multiple choices. For example, a Warren supporter may passionately prefer her for president, but if Warren isn’t viable at that precinct caucus (pulling in at least 15% of caucusgoers there), that person then gets to realign to another candidate, and that’s where the strategy kicks in. If she’s concerned that Sanders can’t get elected, she may realign to Biden or Buttigieg or someone else, just to deprive Sanders the delegate numbers. It’s some interesting gamesmanship, and the multiple sets of numbers that will come out tonight will, for the first time, help outsiders see just how that happens.
In the mean time, congratulations to all the party actors who have gotten us this far, and good luck to the candidates and their teams as voters and caucusgoers begin to render their verdicts.