Heather Cox Richardson on the primary process, and Julian Assange

February 19, 2020 (Wednesday)

The big news today in Washington was that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, the venue that dumped emails from Democratic officials hacked by Russian intelligence before the 2016 election, claims that the Trump administration offered him a pardon if he would say that Russia was not involved in leaking the stolen emails in 2016.

In London, where Assange is fighting extradition to the United States, Assange’s lawyer says that Assange will prove that former California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher visited Assange when he was holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2017 to make the offer. The White House has categorically denied this story, although Rohrabacher’s visit to Assange, and his subsequent assertion that the Russians had nothing to do with hacking Democrats, is public record. So, too, is Rohrabacher’s meeting with Trump for 45 minutes before he went to see Assange.

All I can say on this is… maybe. That is, this story is entirely in keeping with what we know of Assange, Trump, and Rohrabacher. It fits the relevant timelines. But does Assange have proof? Maybe.

Assange is a terribly problematic witness, a man who has proven in his seven years holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy that he is all about protecting Julian Assange, and who is now facing 175 years in prison if he is extradited to America and convicted of espionage. Under those circumstances, who wouldn’t try virtually anything?

Still, on June 15, 2016, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), now House Minority Leader, was caught on tape saying: “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” (McCarthy later took Russian money himself, from Lev Parnas.) The obvious way to figure out what really happened is for the House to subpoena Rohrabacher and the other two people allegedly present when Rohrabacher allegedly made the offer: Charles Johnson, a conservative activist, and Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer for Wikileaks. We shall see.

That’s really the big news, as Trump tours the West, so if that’s enough for you today, you can call it quits here with a clear conscience.

But (isn’t it always “but…” with me?) I have wanted to write about the presidential nomination process for ages, and there has never been a good time, as news kept intervening. Tonight seems tailor-made for such a post as the Democratic candidates debate in Nevada, trying to work their way toward a nomination. So here goes:

There are two important pieces to remember before you even think about nomination procedures. First of all, it is states, not the national government, that control voting. That means that each state has its own procedure, even though the parties are national. And second, our political parties are not affiliated with the government. That seems totally weird, I know, but while anyone can declare their allegiance to one party or another, the leadership of those parties is not part of the government. The parties can organize themselves however they wish, so long as they don’t run afoul of federal laws. (There is a totally byzantine procedure for reworking their bylaws, which they do frequently, and which I will spare you.)

In the nineteenth century, presidential candidates were chosen by party leaders, who were far less concerned with electability than they were with malleability: would the candidate do what party leaders wanted? Men (women could not vote) voted by party alone, and you could not “split the ticket.” You literally received a ticket from a party boss, printed by your party with all the party’s candidates for all offices on it, and color coded in case you could not read, and you put that ticket into a box, usually at a place like a saloon. So who was going to be at the head of the ticket wasn’t something leaders took lightly, but pleasing the voters was less important than making sure the presidential candidate was a straight party man.

Often, those candidates were chosen by a group of party regulars, a “caucus,” arguing until they could come up with a candidate they could all live with. Some state parties still use this system, although it is now open to regular voters. Caucuses are overseen by the parties, and now allot delegates to each party’s national convention. Today, Iowa holds the first caucuses in the country.

But by the end of the century, voters, and insurgents in the party leadership, were pressuring party elders to listen more closely to the voters. Leaders in a number of states began to let voters have a say in who would lead the party—not the final word, but a say—through primary elections overseen by the local government. These elections determine how many delegates each candidate will get at the party’s national convention. Today, New Hampshire has the country’s first primary of the election season.

The idea was to listen to the voice of the people, but the reality was that party leaders still controlled who was nominated to be president. This became painfully obvious in 1968, when the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey for president despite the fact he had not run in a single primary. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August was a horror show, with protestors demonstrating and police spraying them with mace and tear gas.

After the convention, the Democrats put together a commission to figure out a better nominating system. The McGovern-Fraser Commission required all delegate selection to be open and required representation for minorities. More states promptly adopted primaries. Voter participation in primaries skyrocketed, and in 1972, the party nominated South Dakota Senator George McGovern (who had a PhD in American history– just saying) for the presidency. McGovern went down to a spectacular defeat in 1972, winning only Massachusetts and Washington D. C.—he lost even his home state, which is virtually unheard of. Then, in 1976, Democrats nominated the wild card Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, who won after the debacle of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974, but who lost to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980. Democrats worried that their enthusiastic primary voters were nominating unelectable candidates.

So between August 1981 and February 1982, a 70-person team of Democrats tried to balance the fervor of primary voters with the political experience of party leaders. They added unpledged delegate slots for members of Congress and state party chairs. These are the “superdelegates” you hear about, and while the commission first wanted them to make up 30% of the party’s delegates to the convention, they finally settled on 14%. That number wiggled upward until by 2008 it was 20%; after 2016 it has been revised downward to 16%.

Recently, Republicans have joined the carping that the Democratic nomination is “rigged” because of the superdelegates, but while Republicans don’t really use superdelegates (there are unpledged delegates with different rules in the Republican Party, though), they have their own way for leaders to put a finger on the scales. The first major test for the Republican Party is on Super Tuesday, early in March, when more than a dozen states hold primaries or caucuses. Those states are overwhelmingly southern and conservative, and that early in the season, most voters will not know much about the candidates, so they will vote primarily by name recognition. Unlike the Democrats, many of the Republican delegates are allotted by a modified winner-take-all system, so with Super Tuesday Republican leaders can stop insurgent candidates. They can rest assured that candidates with name recognition will emerge strong… or they could assume that until 2016, when they expected Jeb Bush to lead the pack even though he hadn’t yet campaigned. Unfortunately, there was someone else running that year with greater name recognition than Bush.

This year, a number of Republican state committees have decided not to hold primaries or caucuses but simply to endorse Trump. That is not unheard of: it is a waste of money to hold primaries or caucuses when the party has a strong incumbent. But if an incumbent is weak, the party usually permits challengers, as it did in 1976 when Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination. Some Republicans are unhappy that state parties are not permitting challengers to Trump.

It is no wonder people get confused. And this is just the basics. It does seem a crazy way to pick our nation’s leader, doesn’t it? But I hope this makes it all a little clearer.

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