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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Yes, parties can become less democratic, too

by Caitlin Jewitt and Seth Masket

Tammany Hall (Source: NY Public Library)

In an excellent recent piece in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja urge for a strengthening of parties’ abilities to vet potential nominees. The decline of parties’ power for “peer review” helped to produce Donald Trump as a nominee and invites further threats to American democracy and a weakening of presidents’ ability to govern.

In the piece, Rauch and La Raja describe the evolution of the American party nomination system, from the direct primaries of the early 20th century to the McGovern-Fraser reforms of the early 1970s to the recent changes in campaign finance that increase the power of individual candidates at the expense of party “filters.” They aren’t the first political observers to suggest that the party system has become too democratic.* But there tends to be a fatalism among such diagnoses: how do you turn the party back to elite control? Can you ever put the democratic genie back in its bottle?

We have some recent research suggesting you can. This is an ongoing project to understand when and why state parties change their rules to affect presidential nomination contests. We’re still working on the why part. But an important finding so far is that party nomination rules don’t just move in one direction. State parties change their rules frequently, and they make their rules less “democratic” almost as often as they make their nominating contests more so. 

In our research, we’ve been examining every state party’s changes in its presidential nomination contest rules since 1976. It turns out that state parties change these rules quite often. Nevada alone has amended its rules after nearly every election of the past 40 years, sometimes switching to a caucus and sometimes to a primary, sometimes making the contest earlier in the season and sometimes later, sometimes allocating delegates proportionally and sometimes employing a winner-takes-all system, etc. This year, Nevada Republicans have joined their co-partisans in several other states in just canceling the contest altogether and declaring that all their delegates will go to Donald Trump. 

State parties change their rules frequently, and they make their rules less democratic almost as often as they make their nominating contests more so.

We categorize all changes in presidential nomination rules by whether they make the state contest more “open” or “closed.” If they switch from a caucus to a primary, that makes participation in the contest easier and increases turnout, making the contest more open. If they move from allowing independents to vote to limiting participation just to registered party members, that makes the contest more closed.

Combining our measures of caucus/primary rules and participation rules, we develop a measure of whether a party is opening or closing its nomination contest. We depict this in the graphs below. For each party, we ignore the years that the party was fielding an incumbent president seeking reelection, as parties tend to keep rules constant during those periods or simply change them to protect the incumbent.

The rate of change is pretty stunning. In any given four-year cycle, often between five and ten state parties will shift from primary to caucus or vice versa. And over time, the shifting is roughly equal across directions, even though caucuses or primaries may become fashionable in any given cycle. The shifting is also roughly equal across parties. We also typically see five to ten state parties go from open participation rules to closed ones, or vice versa, in any given cycle. The Democrats are somewhat more prone to allowing independents to vote, while the Republicans have switched back and forth at equal rates.

Again, the big takeaway here is that in each party, there is movement back and forth, with states switching in both directions. On occasion, we see larger swings in one direction: thirteen Democratic contests were opened up between 1980 and 1984, ten were opened up between 1984 and 1988, ten were opened up between 2000 and 2004. Eight Republican contests were opened up between 1976 and 1980 and another thirteen were opened up between 1980 and 1988. The largest shift toward closing the contests occurred on the Republican side between 2012 and 2016, with nine states closing off the Republican contests. 

We tend to view party nominations as having become more “democratic” over time, with the parties seeking greater input on major decisions and rank-and-file voters assuming a larger role in nominations. The findings shown here offer a more nuanced depiction of the past four decades, showing that while more state parties have opened up their contests than have closed them, parties making them more closed is far from uncommon. Both Democratic and Republican state parties will make participation in primaries and caucuses more difficult -- essentially, making their parties less democratic -- with some regularity. 

If party reformers wish to make parties more “closed” to voters to give party elites more vetting power, that would likely be met with considerable pushback. But it’s also hardly unprecedented. State parties do this sort of thing all the time, and voters don’t seem to have rebelled against it.

*We recognize that describing parties with greater participation as "more democratic" is imperfect terminology, as party systems can be quite democratic without allowing much rank-and-file input. A more technically appropriate term might be something like "plebiscitary."

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