"The Primary Rules" VT Poli Sci Prof says Parties Hold the Power

Mar 1, 2019

The 2020 presidential primaries are less than a year from now, and already campaigning is well underway. And while most people see that quadrennial ritual as a way for voters to choose their party’s candidate, a new book argues, that it’s actually the political parties themselves that run the show. 

The primary rules that political parties set limit voter influence, but do not always work as parties expect

Reflecting on 2016, it might seem that the national parties have little control over how the presidential nominations unfold and who becomes their presidential candidate. Yet the parties wield more influence than voters in determining who prevails at the National Conventions. Although the reforms of the late 1960s and 1970s gave rank-and-file party members a clear voice in the selection of presidential candidates, the parties retain influence through their ability to set the electoral rules. Despite this capability, party elites do not always fully understand the consequences of the rules and therefore often promote a system that undermines their goals. The Primary Rules illuminates the balance of power that the parties, states, and voters assert on the process.

Credit University of Michigan Press

Caitlin E. Jewitt uncovers the effects of the rules on the competitiveness of the nomination, the number of voters who participate, and the nomination outcomes. This reveals how the parties exert influence over their members and limit the impact of voters. The Primary Rules builds on prior analyses and extends work highlighting the role of the parties in the invisible primary stage, as it investigates the parties’ influence once the nominations begin. The Primary Rules provides readers with a clearer sense of what the rules are, how they have changed, their consequences, and practical guidance on how to modify the rules of the nomin

We think of our political parties as the backbone of American electoral politics, but as Caitlin Jewitt reminds us, “You have to remember, that the constitution doesn’t even mention political parties and it doesn’t mention anything about how we nominate candidates for office .

That’s right, the parties make their own rules and as the saying goes,’ those who make the rules win the game.’ Jewitt  teaches political science at Virginia Tech and she’s just written a new book is called, ‘The Primary Rules.’  

She points out, “The parties are private organizations and they are therefore free to select candidates to run on their ticket in whatever way they please.”

The process has come a long way from smoke filled rooms where the ‘fix was in,’ early, to the endless ballots voted on during long nominating conventions, where the in crowd, that is the politicians themselves and party elites, ran the show. Jewitt says things are different today, well, to an extent.

“Over the course of American history, the parties have tended to give more and more power to the voters, to the extent that voters have more of a say now, than they ever have before.”

But at the same time Jewitt argues, the rules the parties make –which are totally up to each party- are confusing at best and counterproductive at worst; at least if you still think it’s the voters who do or should select their party’s presidential candidates. She says t each state can change its parties’ rules, with some time restrictions, but also with such frequency, that it’s difficult for the media or anyone else, to explain how things work, to the public. “Voters, citizens are left completely confused for the most part.  So, while we would like to think that it is voters, turning out in primaries and caucuses that determine who becomes the nominee, I argue that the parties have much more control than is typically recognized.

At present anyway, the Democratic party rules state that only 4 states can vote next February, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. No others can, until Super Tuesday, which is next March 3rd . That’s when Virginia will vote, but while the Republican party normally can’t change rules on the fly, according to its own party rules – the Democrats can.  Since all that rulemaking is completely up to the parties, themselves, they too could change. 

Confused yet?

“This system is so complicated, that even the parties don’t even have a good sense of what it’s going to be. Often, they’re chasing their tails. Something happened in one year so they change the rules for next, thinking that will fix it.  But they’re not taking the long view on how these rules matter,

In the Primary Rules, Jewitt says the parties function on one primary premise: electability.

“The Republicans and the Democrats have different goals, but the goal of each party is to win in November. That means and the parties are prioritizing that goal and if you think about it from a rational perspective that’s what they should be doing. They want to nominate the candidate that can win, and they want to try to create a system that promotes that goal. And what I try to point out in the book is, that there are several goals and those goals are in tension. So if parties are promoting a candidate whot can win, then that might mean that voters could get left behind.”

Jewitt looks back to the Democratic party’s early anointment of Hilary Clinton as the candidate.  Endorsements came early and super delegates were in her corner.  By the way, only the Democrats have what are known as super delegates, and while they are not pledged to vote for anyone in particular, and they don’t even get a vote on the first ballot, just their personage holds some sway with their fellow party members.

And these nuances just go on and on, creating the folklore that the rest of us call ‘the political process.  And for some, once the fever sets in, it’s hard to cure.  Jewitt ,herself, caught it as an undergrad, when she spent a term in New Hampshire, during its ‘First in the Nation’ primary election.  She was studying the topic and volunteering on a campaign.  There was no Republican primary that year, George Bush was running for his second term, but the Democratic party was a contest.

“I went to campaign events for John Kerry and Howard Dean. So,you’re in a small room with Kerry and a couple of hundred people, and I was like OMG, people care here! You go to a diner and you’re eating breakfast and in walks a candidate and they’re trying to get you to vote for them. People were excited.”  Then, she went back to New York, where she was going to school “and people were, like ‘Oh? There’s a presidential nomination going on?  Non one seemed d to know or care. And by the time New York voted John Kerry was the nominee.  There was no hoopla, no competition.”

That was 2004. These days, more people are paying attention and questioning the electoral process itself.  Putting aside for now, the explosive  topic of foreign countries possibly meddling with the vote cout – the electoral college has become a sore subject.

She says, of course, “The Electoral college was controversial in 2016 and it was controversial in 2000. My perspective on all this is, there are rules and the candidates operate within the rules, so you heard a lot of uproar over the fact that the popular vote and electoral college outcome didn’t match in 2016, nor in 2000, but the candidates know that going in and they craft their strategies accordingly.”

There have been lots of accusations that the system is rigged, not only in 2016.  Jewitt’s response is that ‘Yes, of course it’s rigged.”  And that’s how the game is played. “There is no system that is perfect; there is no system that is fair. There are just rules that prioritize one goal over another or that support certain candidates’ advantage. There’s no obvious solution. It’s all about thinking what kind of goal you want and all about crafting a system to achieve it.”

So while who the candidates are, what the turnout is and which choices voters make, matter a great deal, the primaries rule.

This semester, Jewett is teaching a course on electoral politics at Virginia Tech. She says they’ll spend an entire day on voter identification laws and how widely they vary.  In some states you a photo I.D., while in her home state of New York, all you need is to sign your name.  “I get to see a history of how my Father’s signature has changed over the years, “she quips.  

But it’s not the same everywhere.  And when it comes to political primaries, practically nothing is.

Her new book, The Primary Rules is published by University of Michigan Press.