This has been an odd election cycle for people on BOTH sides of the aisle. Nothing has felt “normal”. Whether conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, everyone seems to recognize that this year’s election cycle seems different, yet I haven’t heard anyone recognize WHY it seems so odd. I think I’ve found what has been troubling everyone—the parties have reversed their usual methods of selecting a candidate.
The Republican and Democratic parties each have their own typical way that candidates are sent to the Presidential general election. The pattern holds back over the last four decades at the least, and probably earlier than that.
Typically, the Republican party’s selection comes as a surprise to no one. The nominee is generally “expected” early on in the process. It is almost as if it is decided beforehand whose “turn” it is to be the nominee. In the 1980s, Reagan was virtually guaranteed to be the nominee. Likewise George H.W. Bush after him. Robert Dole, based on his history in the party naturally came next. Few were surprised when George W. Bush took the nomination in 2000. John McCain and Mitt Romney were also the expected choices in 2008 & 2012.
Then we get to 2016. Early in the primary process, the “accepted wisdom” was that Jeb Bush would be the Republican nominee. Then, out of nowhere, Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the Republican nomination. In a party where seniority and “paying your dues” is the typical path to the nomination, an “outsider” ran a surprising campaign that defied everyone’s expectations.
Looking at the Democratic party, the same thing happened in reverse. In most cases, the Democratic candidate is much less of a “given” than on the Republican side. Looking back at early 1992, no one expected Bill Clinton to get the nomination, much less be twice-elected to the White House. Though Al Gore was somewhat expected in 2000, that was primarily the result of his position as vice-president. By 2008, everyone was sure that Hillary Clinton would easily win the Democratic nod. However, seemingly out of nowhere, Barack Obama, who at the time was the relatively unknown (compared to Mrs. Clinton) junior Senator from Illinois, leap-frogged past the expected choice to capture the nomination (and the White House) twice.
However, this year, the latest scandal is the Democratic National Committee’s “manipulation” of the nomination process to seemingly help Mrs. Clinton to end-run Bernie Sanders’ upstart campaign. The superdelegate concept, with its roots in the late 1960s, was intended to ensure that an “electable” candidate survived the nomination process by giving party leaders more of a voice in the nomination process. For the last 20 years, the superdelegates and the DNC leadership were pretty much in sync with the popular choice. This year, however, as the relative number of superdelegates has increased, the rank and file members find themselves at odds with party leadership.
Time will tell whether this is a long-term change or merely an aberration in a long history. The results of the election may affect each party’s opinion of the new process. A win might cement the change, while a loss might encourage a party to return to its old method. Either way, it should be an interesting election season.