A History of Conventions and Wedging

There has been much rigamarole about the convention process being fairly undemocratic. Many stories have popped up of Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz slurping up delegates even as they didn't win the popular vote of a given state. The practice brings to mind the image of fat deal-makers sitting about in a dark, smoke-filled room, deciding who the nominee will be.

But the democratization of primaries is fairly new, happening only in the past 50 years or so. In the past, the nomination process didn't have any electoral primaries at all--instead, delegates were simply chosen by state party bosses, and sent to the convention with some pretty complex instructions about their top choice and what deals they were willing to cut in order to change their minds for certain candidates. 

Anyone more interested in the history of this can listen to our podcast episode on delegate math, but it's not necessary to keep reading.

The impression we get in 2016 is that the party leadership tends to focus on a more moderate candidate. Trump and Sanders, whatever their flaws and virtues, represent departures from the core platform of the Republican and Democratic parties, and the parties are resisting it.

Supporters of both of these candidates are frustrated and bitter at seeing this. They feel they've been wronged. These are the rules that the parties have been using for some years, so one might say, "you can't complain." But as another friend said, "you can't give people the illusion of democratic input, strip that away, and then expect to maintain your legitimacy and support." Certainly Trump will come in with greater support than Cruz or Kasich, and Sanders may end the nomination with nearly as many primary votes and as much caucus support as Clinton, but the parties both have means of blocking anyone who doesn't get overwhelming support in those primaries. 

Such a result may mean voters become even more disillusioned and frustrated than they already have been, and it may force the parties to democratize the process even more.

But a reader asked a very interesting question: "did the old, backroom-deal style of nominations actually reduce political polarization?"

We thought about it, and leaned back on the wedge hypothesis that we put forward in our book WedgedWe decided the answer was, "probably, yes!"

Traditional academic theory on two-party elections is that each candidates runs towards the middle. The reason to do this is that they want to absorb 51%+ of the vote-share, and this means that they would try to be very moderate-left and moderate-right in order to win the moderate middle, as well as their left and right supporters. 

But in a very democratic primary process, the incentives change. During this primary, the candidates are generally only trying to win the love of the left-wing and right-wing elements of the United States electorate. This means that during these primary battles, they run towards the fringes to pick up these votes, rather than towards the middle.

Once they make it to the general election, they have a tough time trying to wrench themselves back to the middle. They have already positioned themselves as solidly progressive or conservative, and too dramatic a shift is seen as outright flip-floppery or dishonesty. Romney's campaign manager in 2012 famously gaffed that the general election is "like an etch-a-sketch," in which one can shake up one's statements and positions, and re-draw them from scratch. But to no avail, at least for Romney. 

This process is a runaway effect: as candidates run towards the fringes in primaries, party voters that aren't true believers have left the parties, making others leave the party and become Independents. In many states, they simply don't get to vote in primaries.

This means that the path to victory for a candidate no longer relies on appealing to party bosses--who want to win and have some pragmatism about implementing policy--but instead they are beholden to the party die-hards on the right and left of the political spectrum.

Does this mean that the democratization of primaries is a bad thing? That is not for us to judge. But the evidence suggests that because the filtering process for each party's nominee now rests with the true believers of conservatism and progressivism, it seems we're going to keep getting more left- and right-leaning candidates, rather than very moderate ones, rising to the general elections. 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.