With Caucuses Mostly Eliminated, the Nomination May Be Determined Rapidly
Go Ahead and ‘Fall in Love’ with a Candidate, but Be Prepared to Embrace Whichever Wins
By Al Giordano
Note: This is an excerpt from Issue #92 of the Al Giordano’s América newsletter, sent via email to subscribers (who can also read the full essay, along with the rest of the content, here once logged in).
As we hurtle toward 2020, it is impossible not to reflect on my experiences as witness to, and participant in, every contested Democratic presidential primary of the past 43 years. That history informs how I observe today’s events.
I’ll share some key notes from the first three primaries I lived, those of 1976, 1980 and 1984, when I took part in as an activist and, later, as an organizer. Those were the years that created the nomination process that we know today.
We’ll save for future issues some of the relevant lessons I learned as a political journalist who reported the primaries of 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2016. But those previous three cycles were key: It was back then that the Democratic presidential nominating process we know today was born of struggle and grew up in an era of reforms.
When we understand exactly how the process will work in 2020 we put ourselves ahead of the curve.
Being ahead of the curve is no longer an option for those of us who want to make change – it is a duty if we want to win in 2020.
That’s because in order not to blow it in 2020 we must embrace and ride on the wings of the struggles, their successes and reforms, that brought us to this threshold today of what will be in 2020 the most fair and small-d democratic-Democratic primary in history.
The consequences of misunderstanding our own history, or of willfully ignoring it, will only increase the chances of a bitter and brutal defeat with irreparable consequences.
Let’s take a stroll together down Amnesia Lane to remember together the last half-century of struggles that must not be forgotten by all of us who inherited them.
People act as if the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus is something grandfathered into the Declaration of Independence but it’s a relatively new development in American history. The first Iowa caucuses were not held until 1972.
As recently as 1968, rank and file Democrats in Iowa – and in 35 more states – had no vote at all in the party’s presidential nominee or even in the delegates that would go to the national convention to choose them. Those who today run around claiming the nomination process is “rigged” (they do it each time voters show they have their own different opinions than theirs) are being willfully ignorant of the reality that the current presidential nomination process is the best we or anyone has ever known. The first reforms by which we nominate presidential candidates by today were launched between the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections, and a second wave of them between 1984 and 1988. 2008 brought the Obama small donor breakthrough that evened the fundraising playing field and today makes it possible for a candidate like Elizabeth Warren to forego big donor events altogether.
And in the past two years the Democratic National Committee has achieved yet another wave of progress in making 2020 even fairer.
In the midst of the social unrest of the 1960s – a nation divided over the Vietnam War, shaken by societal shifts from struggles for civil and equal rights and by a generation gap fueled by a wider sexual freedoms and psychedelic drug use – the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago chose Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a man who had not won a single primary, as nominee. That’s when the old nominating system tumbled down into the dustbin of history and all political hell broke loose.
Today’s Nomination Process Was Born After 1968
Only fourteen states had held primaries that year. In New Hampshire, the first, President Lyndon Johnson won with 50 percent of the vote, but Minnesota Senator and anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy garnered 42 percent and the momentum of having beaten expectations coming out of that elevated his from a protest candidacy to a formidable one (McCarthy would not be the last candidate to score a “win” New Hampshire by coming in second; Bill Clinton pulled off a similar symbolic victory in 1992 and others accomplished the same as runners-up in the Iowa caucuses).
In 1968 the first primary didn’t happen until March 12. Nomination fights were shorter back then. Four days later Former attorney general and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, having seen Johnson was electorally vulnerable, entered the contest. RFK’s campaign got off a slow start as McCarthy won the next three contests in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and even in Kennedy’s natal state of Massachusetts. Then at the end of March, the embattled incumbent Johnson surprised many when he suddenly withdrew from the race.
Vice President Humphrey and backers, knowing that convention delegations from the other 36 states would be chosen by party leaders, chose to run a stealth campaign rather than risk Johnson’s fate by putting the candidate’s name on the ballot. In delegate-rich Ohio and Florida they wielded favorite son candidates in winner-take-all primaries whose delegates would support Humphrey at the convention.
The tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago run by machine politicians as typified by its host, Mayor Richard Daley, produced Humphrey as the nominee. Street protests outside the hall degenerated into a violent police-riot due to Daley’s heavy hand and protest leaders’ belief that their crusade was about far more than a Democratic nominee or electoral politics but, rather, was to bring about a “revolution” (a word that today is similarly bandied about in ways that strip it of all meaning).
Years later, I would hear stories about those events from one their chief instigators and architects, my mentor in community organizing, Abbie Hoffman.
In public, Abbie was fond of saying, “I regret nothing!” Abbie was not into what today we call “apology tours” and they weren’t part of his playbook. But in private he warned me and other young people to learn also from his mistakes and those of the activists of his generation. Chicago, during that 1968 convention, had spun out of his or anybody’s control. By the 1980s, when other leaders of those protests had become either yuppie businessmen, New Age seekers, political candidates or tenured university academics, Abbie remained true to organizing. He had shifted his focus from tearing down institutions to building organization and public opinion from the bottom, up.
After Republican Richard Nixon defeated Humphrey in the 1968 elections, the Democratic Party entered an era of reform, including in how its nominee would be chosen. Delegates to the national convention would, going forward, be chosen by the voters in primaries or caucuses. Proportional representation – in place of winner-take-all primaries – would guarantee that minority populations would have fair representation in the process, too.
Think about it: Only twelve presidential campaigns in US history have allowed voters to directly choose the Democratic nominee. In two of those, incumbent Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, faced no serious primary challenge. Five of those nominations have produced a Democratic president. Five have produced candidates who lost to a Republican. And two produced Democratic nominees who won the popular vote nationwide but lost in the Electoral College math.
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