Kirsten Gillibrand is the latest candidate to drop out of the Democratic presidential race. We have Biden, Bernie, and Betty, I mean Elizabeth, plus the also-rans. Why should the field shrink so fast, during the summer of 2019? We have more than six months till the big primaries come around, a full year before the Democratic National Convention.
Every party activist has one word cooking in the background: primaries. The party has to select its presidential nominee at a convention, therefore each state devises a delegate selection process. We have caucuses, state conventions, and super-delegates, but generally, electoral success in the primaries wins the nomination. After that, you might go to the White House, and acquire all the power that goes with the office.
Generally, electoral success in the primaries wins the nomination. Then you might go to the White House.
This process is purely a party function, not a government function. Therefore parties ought to set the rules. Our Constitution specifies only one requirement: win a majority of votes in the electoral college. Political parties – which do not act as agents of government, and no government has any reason to regulate – handle everything else, state by state. They are no more subject to government regulation than a newspaper, a magazine, or a website. They do not receive or spend taxpayers’ money. By definition, politicians cannot commit fraud when they campaign for office, because dishonesty is a fundamental part of the process. In short, politics has nothing to regulate.
In fact, you could say government efforts to regulate political parties interfere radically with democratic processes. They interfere with freedom of speech, freedom to vote, freedom to organize and assemble, freedom to publicize, freedom to act on almost every political front. Politicians even use campaign finance laws as a weapon to threaten other politicians they do not like, a laughable tactic. Why then do we tolerate efforts by powerful government officials to regulate parties?
The most onerous regulations apparent during this election season are requirements that pertain to campaign finance. Do not tell me that these regulations are necessary to keep our political processes clean. They do exactly the opposite. Every element of our political process becomes tainted with illegitimacy because we try to regulate money in politics. Let’s take the situation in front of us, the Democratic party’s requirement to select a presidential nominee.
Several months ago, nearly two dozen Democratic candidates launched campaigns to win their party’s presidential nomination. Their first order of business when they launch is not to figure out why they want to be president, or communicate these reasons to colleagues and voters. Their first order of business was to get their financial records in order, organize to raise money, and comply with federal election laws. The Federal Election Commission watches every move, and imposes substantial fines on campaigns that violate its rules.
One rule in particular has an outsize impact on candidate selection. Each candidate must report the amount of money they raise each quarter. They must keep detailed records about who donates, size of donations, number of donations, and so on, but the total number of dollars raised is the data point that counts. Journalism world does not care about anything else, though they like you if your small donations outnumber large ones.
One rule in particular has an outsize impact on candidate selection. Each candidate must report the amount of money they raise each quarter.
This quarterly report is deadly if you do not come out near the top. Small totals in the early going means journalists implicitly brand you a loser, which means, of course, party members do not mention you when a pollster calls. They mention the big names – Biden, Betty, and Bernie – who raise lots of money because they have big names.
Both factors go together: the bigger your name, the more money you raise; the more money you raise, the more name fame. Notice how, after the first couple of quarters, journalists stopped reporting detailed figures for dollars raised. You don’t need to report on dollars after you have established your front runners, or ‘top-tier candidates’, as they like to call them. Once you have your top-tier candidates, you can turn your attention to polls, debates, policy snipes, and other campaign staples.
All the cycles fit together, because we appear to want predictions we can believe. The fund-raising cycle feeds the news cycle, the polling cycle, the debate cycle, and every other omen we care to note, only because the FEC requires that candidates report their totals. I argue journalists would not be able to sort candidates into tiers so early, if campaigns could keep their fund-raising totals private. We do not want tiers; we want a free-for-all, in the true sense: a political arena that anyone can enter, for free.
Instead we have a vicious circle: the more money and name recognition you have, the better your poll results. The better your poll results, the more money you raise. Which tier are you in? Did you make the debates?
Suddenly you have a trio of front-runners, and more than half a dozen people you haven’t heard from in weeks have dropped out. The crushing rule: if your poll numbers are too low, you don’t have a spot in the next debate. If you don’t have a spot at the debate, then who the hell are you? You’re a loser, that’s what! Why should you continue your campaign, if on debate night you sit in front of your own television, to watch your colleagues fulminate at each other? Do you think you’ll be able to raise any money after that?
What would be wrong with twenty candidates going into the convention next summer?
The requirement that candidates report their fund raising totals shortly after they launch their campaigns assures a rapid reduction in the size of the field a couple of quarters down the line. Some would say, the sooner the better: let’s winnow the field as quickly as we can. I would say that is deadly to the sense of democratic legitimacy party members ought to seek. What would be wrong with twenty candidates going into the convention next summer?
That would certainly be better than the bitter rivalry that existed between Sanders and Clinton supporters in both the 2016 nomination contest, and in the general election that followed. By November, Sanders supporters stayed home, potential Clinton supporters stayed home, independents stayed home. Trump was elected with forty-six percent of the vote. The spectacle Democrats put on in 2016 was not to be believed, for reasons beyond the Clinton-Sanders split. Yet voters did believe it, and they especially did not like to see one candidate strong-arm her way to victory at the convention. They decided not to participate in a presidential election that had descended to such a level.
That’s why we have to consider how regulation affects democratic legitimacy. Trump and Warren love to throw around the word ‘rigged’, but we’re not talking about rigging in the literal sense, as in rigging the 1919 World Series. We’re talking about the sense that the little guy doesn’t have a chance, doesn’t have a voice, can’t raise enough money, can’t break two percent in the polls, can’t find a place at the debate. It’s all fixed to favor the big shots. It’s all fixed to favor the ones who rake it in during the first quarter’s fund-raising sweepstakes.
If you remove the requirement to report your fund-raising totals, you remove one element of the fix. You give campaigners a chance to focus on why fellow party members should consider their bid to be the party’s nominee. How the party selects its nominee affects the way voters view the candidate. Moreover, the party sets the rules for this selection process. No government should interfere in it. When legislatures and commissions interfere in party processes, voters want to check out. Why bother? People in power make sure people in power stay in power.
Remove government from politics. I mean that. When government interferes in electoral politics, a sense of illegitimacy hangs over the entire process. Then who cares? Do I want to wear an I VOTED button? No. Even more, when I give money to a political campaign, I do not want the campaign to report the donation. That transaction is private.