Winner-Take-All Primaries: Weapons Against Their Designers

Winner-Take-All Primaries: Weapons Against Their Designers

One of the brutal ironies of the 18th century French Reign of Terror is that the designer of the specific device first installed in Place de Grève that became known as the guillotine, Dr. Antoine Louis,  eventually lost his head to it. What he had designed to punish enemies eventually punished him.

This is the way of powerful weapons, including political weapons.

My favorite example is the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to a lifetime total of two terms. It was written in reaction to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s extended tenure in the Oval Office. The charge was led principally by Republicans, and the intent was to ensure that no future Democratic president would serve so long, no matter what the voters might want.

The hammer, of course, has worked. No Democratic president has served more than two terms since Roosevelt. But when the Republican Party had Ronald Reagan, who unseated a sitting Democratic president in 1980 and shellacked Walter Mondale in 1984, they discovered that the hammer was as effective against them as it had been for them.

There was brief discussion of trying to float an amendment to repeal or modify the limitation. But the obvious partisan motivation of the proposal at the time, with barely a fig leaf of good policy cover (unlike the 22nd Amendment, which rested on George Washington’s decision and rationale), quickly ended conversation.

That’s the problem with a really heavy political hammer. It is great at driving nails into the coffin of others’ ambitions. But if others get the hammer . . .

Both parties pay lip service to the idea that a season of truly competitive primaries and caucuses is healthy for the party and for the candidate. They talk about debating priorities before the court of public opinion and strengthening the eventual nominee through a series of sparring matches with rivals from the same gym before the main event in November.

But strategists (and erstwhile candidates) in both parties also dread the process.

Prolonged nomination fights are expensive, for one. For another, the longer the season, the more it seems the rivals fight aggressively for the support of the ideological and cultural extremes of their respective parties, providing ample fodder for general election ads to be run by the other party or its supportive SuperPACs. Simultaneously, the campaigns themselves and their patrons in the SuperPAC world launch volleys of increasingly brutal attack pieces that may convince the public that the eventual nominee is corrupt, or incompetent, or deeply misguided, long before the other party begins to make that case.

So while the rhetoric of open debate floats down like snowflakes on a caucus in Iowa, the machinations behind the nomination process are designed to bar the gate against insurgents before the crocuses bloom in Des Moines.

The supporters of this particular political stockade imagined that big state winner-take-all primaries, scheduled early enough, would bar the gates against challengers to Republican orthodoxy. The belief was that only a relatively mainstream Republican leader (a Romney, a McCain or a Bush, for example) would be able to secure a plurality of the votes in these populous states.  With a winner-take-all distribution of delegates, even a bare plurality for the frontrunner would translate into an almost insurmountable delegate lead. Only a fanatical challenger (or a self-financing one) would be able to stay in the race for long after that. Such challengers wouldn’t generate as much mainstream press, wouldn’t have the resources to generate much in the way of political advertising, and no longer would attract significant independent expenditures. The soon-to-be nominee would have months to raise money for the general election and heal from the battle before the war.

No one . . . okay, at least no one that I know or have read . . . imagined that these winner-take-all primaries would bar the gates against the mainstream candidate and ensure, at best, a brokered convention, and at worst (from this perspective) the nomination of someone like Donald Trump.

But we should have.

If we create a large hammer, we must assume that others will one day use it. If we build a high stockade, we must assume that, one day, its gates will be barred against us.

More generally, any special advantage we might try to build into any system of decision making can (and probably will) be used against us someday. Advantage, as a device or a design, ultimately will serve whoever finds a way to master it.