Sunday, February 21, 2016

Of Caucuses and Primaries and Conventional Wisdom and Bellwethers

One of the things that makes American politics so fascinating is the fact it is constantly evolving. Something is always conventional wisdom — until it isn't.

For example, conventional wisdom once held that a candidate for president who had been divorced could not be elected president. A noteworthy example is Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, who was nominated by the Democrats in 1952 and 1956 but lost both times. He had been divorced in the late 1940s — and did not marry again — and most of the books I have read about Stevenson and presidential politics indicate that his divorce was an obstacle he could never overcome in the more puritanical environment of the 1950s.

But I wouldn't rule out other contributing factors, such as:

When Stevenson ran in 1952, Democrats had held the White House for 20 years, and incumbent Harry Truman's popularity was mired in the 20s, according to Gallup. Voter fatigue was likely a strong factor.

Stevenson's opponent in 1952 was war hero Dwight Eisenhower, who was less than 10 years removed from his triumph in World War II. The amiable, popular Eisenhower was seeking a second term in 1956. That was likely another strong factor.

Stevenson was perceived as an intellectual; while that had appeal for some, it was seen as elitist by blue–collar voters. Yet another strong factor.

Divorce was still a problem for would–be presidents in the '60s. It was problematic for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 1960, 1964 and 1968, but not necessarily a permanent problem. In 1960 his problem had not been divorce but Vice President Richard Nixon. Between 1960 and 1964, however, Rockefeller was divorced from his wife of more than 30 years. Divorce was still an issue in many places, but, as historian Theodore H. White observed at the time, "American politics can accept divorce: for every four new marriages each year, one old marriage breaks up. ... Divorced candidates get elected and re–elected in American life; and even after his divorce Nelson Rockefeller was re–elected."

But, White went on to observe, "Remarriage ... complicates even more the political problem," and Rockefeller's remarriage definitely complicated his presidential campaigns in 1964 and 1968.

Rockefeller did become vice president. When Gerald Ford, the first to be appointed vice president under the provisions of the 25th Amendment, became president after Richard Nixon's resignation, he nominated Rockefeller to take his place. But when Ford was nominated in 1976 for a full four–year term as president, Rockefeller was not his running mate.

It was ironic, I suppose, that, while Ford was never divorced, his wife Betty had been married and divorced prior to her marriage to the future president.

Four years later, divorce and remarriage were not issues at all when Ronald Reagan sought and won the presidency. He had been divorced in 1949 and remarried in 1952, but he was elected president twice by landslides.

In 2016, divorce and remarriage clearly are not part of the political equation. The apparent Republican front–runner, Donald Trump, has been divorced twice and is on his third marriage.

Today, conventional wisdom is being challenged in other more — shall we say? — conventional ways. In truth, conventional wisdom is always being challenged — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Eight years ago, conventional wisdom still held that a black man could not win the presidency. In my grandparents' America — and even my parents' America — that was so. It is so no more.

And, in my grandparents' America and my parents' America, the primary in tiny New Hampshire always played a significant role in the selection of a presidential nominee. New Hampshire only chooses a handful of delegates in its primary, though; alone, they are unlikely to influence the eventual decision at the convention unless the vote is very tight. The primary's real value is in the media attention and perceived momentum it gives the winners.

And much of that was due to New Hampshire's reputation for choosing the ultimate winner of the general election.

It is important to remember that presidential primaries are largely post–World War II creations. For much of our history, the delegates who selected presidential nominees at their parties' conventions were chosen by state party conventions, and the delegates to those conventions were generally chosen at the county level via caucuses.

Thus, caucuses, although not how the delegates from most states are chosen today, have deep roots in the American political system. They operate in quirky and inconsistent (from state to state) ways, but that was how the majority of states chose delegates to the national conventions for a long time.

Primaries have existed since the early 19th century, but unless you're well over 40, you probably have no memory of a time when primaries were still a secondary form of delegate selection — if delegates were chosen at all. Some primaries were called "beauty contests" because the results were not binding on the delegates who were chosen.

New Hampshire has been holding first–in–the–nation primaries to choose delegate slates since 1920. The names of candidates were on the ballot starting in 1952, and the history of the primary from 1952 to 1988 was that it was possible to win a party's presidential nomination without winning the New Hampshire primary, but it was not possible to win the presidency.

But the last three nonincumbents to win the presidency — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — did not win the New Hampshire primary before being elected president. All three won it when they ran for re–election.

Clearly, the conventional wisdom about the New Hampshire primary has changed. It is still the first primary in the nation, but its influence is questionable.

The role of the primary system in the selection of presidential nominees changed in 1976 when Jimmy Carter made a point of running in every primary. Prior to 1976, candidates could pick and choose where to campaign. In many states, delegates were not obligated to follow the primary results when they voted for a presidential nominee at the national convention.

After 1976, voters expected every active candidate's name to be on their state's primary ballot. Whereas maybe one–quarter of states (at most) held primaries in the years before Carter's historic campaign, each party will have primaries in 38 states in 2016.

And the results in each will be reflected in the delegates who go to Philadelphia (Democrats) and Cleveland (Republicans) this summer.

OK, so divorce/remarriage no longer matters in presidential politics, and the winner of New Hampshire won't necessarily win the presidency.

If you're looking for a political bellwether, we may have just witnessed one in South Carolina yesterday.

Businessman Donald Trump won with just under one–third of the vote. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were locked in a battle for second place and appear to have emerged as Trump's leading challengers. Cruz, of course, won the Iowa caucuses. Rubio has yet to finish first in any presidential electoral contest, but both he and Cruz predicted they would be nominated. Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished fourth. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush withdrew, and Dr. Ben Carson appears to be in the race at least through Nevada's Republican caucuses on Tuesday.

As I observed a few days ago, the South Carolina Republican primary has been won by the party's eventual nominee in every presidential election year but one since 1980 — the last three Republican presidents won the South Carolina primary before being elected. Historically speaking, Trump's win there yesterday should make the nomination, if not the general election, a done deal.

Of course, he also won in New Hampshire, and the history of the last 24 years indicates that, while the winner there might win the nomination, he won't win the election.

Both streaks could continue this year — if Trump wins the nomination but loses the election. Much will depend upon what happens in the next couple of weeks. Polls are suggesting that Trump will win Tuesday's caucuses in Nevada by more than a 2–to–1 margin. Super Tuesday is a week later. If Trump is on a winning streak after Super Tuesday, it will probably be all but over — especially since Cruz's home state of Texas will be voting on Super Tuesday.

The Democrats held their caucuses in Nevada yesterday, and Hillary Clinton defeated insurgent socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, but by a margin that was almost as narrow as the one she had in Iowa.

She seems likely to win next Saturday's South Carolina primary by a comfortable margin — but that was also the conventional wisdom before Iowa and Nevada.

Conventional wisdom holds that Clinton will score well with black voters in South Carolina, who represent more than half of the state's Democrats, because of the good will many blacks still have for her husband. If that proves to be true, she will no doubt win the primary — and in a big way.

But she is still facing a problem with young voters, and the Nevada caucuses revealed her weakness with Latino voters. Neither group has a reputation for voting in large numbers, but they have appeared to be a part of the new emerging Democrat coalition.

What will the outcome in South Carolina next Saturday tell us about the new conventional wisdom concerning those demographics?

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