When it comes to presidential politics, process matters.
That’s the lesson of the March 4 primaries that saw Sen. John McCain gain a lock on the Republican nomination with his four-state win that day. Despite deep divisions within his own party earlier in the year, McCain’s delegate count kept mounting as winner-take-all elections helped him sweep delegates away from his intraparty rivals during the state-by-state primary contests.
Ironically, the more unified Democratic Party found that it was unable to anoint a clear front-runner after its early March primaries. Unlike the Republican Party, which permits winner-take-all contests, the Democratic Party requires a proportional allocation of delegates based on each candidate’s relative share of the votes in the primaries and caucuses.
If the roles had been reversed, with the Republicans requiring proportional allocation and the Democrats permitting winner-take-all, McCain might still be slugging it out with his rivals, while the Democrats might have coalesced around a presumptive presidential nominee.
Key Democratic Party rules governing the presidential nominating process have their origins in the bitter presidential nomination battle of 1968. Back then, insurgents bucking the party’s establishment claimed that party procedures had been stacked against them.
The intraparty battle for the nomination was particularly intense in Minnesota, where the DFL’s two leading figures, Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, were vying to succeed President Lyndon Johnson.
The opening round in the 1968 fight occurred at the March 5 precinct caucuses that set in motion the process for selecting Minnesota’s delegates to the national convention in Chicago. During the weeks leading up to statewide caucuses, DFL party leaders supporting Humphrey were confident that they could turn back a challenge from party insurgents who were backing McCarthy and his strong stand against the Vietnam War.
On Feb. 24, DFL Party Chair Warren Spannaus predicted that the McCarthy forces would generate enough support at the caucuses to elect only six of the state’s 62 delegates to the Chicago convention. But Spannaus was proven wrong on March 5, when the McCarthy insurgents dominated the metro-area caucuses and gained the right to select national convention delegates representing the three Twin Cities area congressional districts.
But the wins by the insurgents gave them only 16 delegates, to be selected at the congressional district level. Later, 20 at-large-delegates to the Chicago convention would be chosen at the State DFL Convention in St. Paul. When the McCarthy delegates arrived at the state convention, they found that party rules gave the Humphrey forces an overpowering advantage in the selection of the at-large delegates. Despite their significant strength at the St. Paul convention, the McCarthy forces were shut out of the at-large delegate-selection process. A winner-take-all election on the floor of the convention gave Humphrey supporters all 20 at-large convention slots.
McCarthy supporters all over the country were experiencing the same problems with state party delegate-selection processes. On June 19, McCarthy would win the New York primary, but lose out during the delegate-selection process when the New York State Democratic Central Committee awarded him only 15½ of the state’s 65 at-large delegates to the National Convention.
After 1968, former McCarthy supporters and other Democratic activists began agitating for a reform of Democratic Party rules, which they felt gave an unfair advantage to the party’s establishment. In response to this call for reform, the Democratic National Committee established a study group to overhaul and modernize the party’s delegate-selection process. The group’s formal title was the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. But it was known more popularly as the McGovern-Fraser Commission, named for its first chair, George McGovern, who was succeeded by Minnesota’s Don Fraser, then a congressman from the state’s Fifth District.
The McGovern-Fraser Commission adopted a series of reforms aimed at making state delegate-selection procedures more transparent and accessible to rank-and-file party members. The commission’s reform plan called for the state parties to eliminate winner-take-all elections and to replace them with proportional systems that allocated delegate slots based on the each candidate’s relative strength at each stage in the delegate-selection process.
By 1980, many political observers felt that the McGovern-Fraser reforms had swung the pendulum too far toward inclusion and too far away from the party’s established leaders, who were being shut out of the presidential nominating process. In 1982, the Democrats organized a new reform committee, headed by North Carolina Gov. James Hunt. The Hunt Commission created the superdelegates, who received automatic votes at the national convention because of their leadership roles in the party.
This year, Democrats are living with the twin legacies of 1968 and 1982 as they face a still unresolved and increasingly bitter contest to choose their party’s standard bearer in November.