“Winnowing works”–or does it?

I keep seeing political scientists–among those who focus on the US case–using a hashtag that says, “winnowing works”. It has got sufficiently under my skin that I decided to rant about it just a little. Honest, just a little.

I take it they are indicating that it is a good thing that the process set by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has led to several presidential precandidates dropping out already. Sure, in that sense, winnowing works–by definition. That is, the field is smaller than it was a few weeks ago.

But is it working at the task that is presumably the one we should judge it by–producing a strong nominee? I have my doubts. I have very serious reservations about the current top three (Biden, Sanders, Warren). This is (somewhat) independent of their specific policies or track records. They are all old, and each one brings some significant baggage or potential problems with electability.

Maybe I am just unhappy that candidates I disliked less than the rest of the field, like one emphasizing an issue that should be front and center and was one of the few governors in the field (Inslee), one I just happen to find appealing (Booker), or one who seems especially well positioned to win Great Lakes area states lost in 2016 (Klobuchar) are all languishing. But that’s the point. Some of these currently lesser know candidates might have been better choices (Inslee is already out). But they have been, or likely soon will be, winnowed out months before anyone actually casts a vote.

The DNC is doing something very strange here. On the one hand, it continues to pander to the insistence of certain small and unrepresentative states to go early in the process of voting, on the theory that voters seeing a candidate up close are better able to make choices than the rest of us. On the other hand, it has created these big media events (“debates” is not really an appropriate term) and qualifications based on national polling and contributors, which make mass-media name recognition especially important. Am I wrong to see this as a fundamental contradiction?

There are many, many things I do not like about the US process of presidential selection. But I am just not convinced that winnowing is working at delivering a good nominee, vetted by actual voters whether in little states or the Democratic electorate at large.

8 thoughts on ““Winnowing works”–or does it?

  1. I agree: it’s hard to think of the primary schedule and the “debate” winnowing process as anything other than a bizarre mismatch of priorities.

  2. Frankly, the first year of the presidential election process (or four years it seems in the case of the current GOP front runner) isn’t an election campaign or an internal leadership campaign. It is a made for television reality show with convoluted plot lines and the occasional elimination episode.

    Sometimes I half wonder if the Men-in-the-Smoke-Filled-Room may have been on to something.

  3. The frontrunnners are old it’s true, but it’s only in Biden that quite visible signs of cognitive decline (bordering on dementia) have been in evidence. I find it perplexing that a political scientist would zero in on irrelevant demographic detail while ignoring the political and social visions driving the respective campaigns. Warren has put out reams of bold but sensible , scoped out and costed out reform proposals aimed at bettering the lives of ordinary people -but that’s somehow a liability compared to people like Booker (running what’s unquestionably the laziest and most checked-out presidential campaign in history) and Klobuchar, a woman with the charisma of a damp dishrag best known to the wider public for petty and vindictive cruelty and abuse of her staff (and btw LOL if you think her being from Minnesota will help win back WI and PA, that’s “Gore should have won TN” level of magical thinking)./

    I don’t like analogizing politics to sports, but it can be helpful to remember that it’s not just a contest in pure ideas – it’s also about building coalitions, hiring effective staff, generating new ideas, effectively communicating with the public, generating grassroots energy and enthusiasm for their candidates. Warren and Biden are quite clearly superb at this in a way your candidates demonstrably are not;. Ask yourself why the under 35 vote is overwhelmingly for Biden and Warren – do you think young people are unaware of their ages? Or it it something else? (Conversely, and tellingly, most of Biden’s support are over 60 on the apparent theory that the best way to fight a senile incompetent incumbent with a low-rent version of the same.

    Warren can talk policy in masterful detail and still make it understandable for an average voter. Sanders just the other day totally owned a WaPo reporter who selectivley quoted something Bernie said in 1974 and Bernie remembered the rest of the quote and recited it back. I honestly wish my mind and memory worked as well as theirs and i’m half their age.

    Anyway, the winnowing helps narrow the choices to a meaningful, cleary distinguishable choices. And I’d say there are 4 front runners (the above plus Harris), Gillibrand’s departure, just like Klobuchar and Yang and DeBlasio’s inevitable exits will not affect that in any serious sense. (As an aside, it’s gross as hell that Gillibrand was basically blacklisted by Democratic insiders over the Al Franken thing.)

    It’s true that the Presidential primary process sucks but this year it’s unusually competitive and some very talented people are up there. Winnowing non-viable candidates gets rid of distractions and crystallizes the choices before the electorate

    • I don’t consider age “irrelevant”. It can affect actual performance, and we need to project out four years or, preferably, eight.

      Of course, you are free to disagree with my criteria.

  4. One age, I am in favor of a constitutional amendment setting a maximum age of 75 for election to the presidency, along with the minimum age of 35.

    Maximum ages for the election to the Senate at 80 and the House at 84 would also be a good idea, mirroring the relation of the minimum ages (30 and 26) to the presidential minimum. There should also be mandatory retirement at a certain age for judges, which is the standard in the rest of the world.

    The record holder for the oldest person to be elected President is Reagan at 74 in 1984, and in fact he did show “cognitive decline” over the term he was elected for. And yes, Trump, Biden, and Sanders are that age or older and Warren is up there, both Trump and Hillary Clinton were pretty old in the last cycle and Clinton in particular sometimes showed it. A Trump versus Biden election would feature two elderly candidates who are both showing signs of dementia.

    • I am not in favour of a retirement age or qualification for presidencies or prime ministerships. There may be a case for examination by an independent medical commissions happens in a number of new democracies, most notably Indonesia, where the medical examination includes running around an oval (with an exemption for wheelchair-bound candidates) in a minimum time and has become a major event in the campaign.

  5. I’m curious to see a comparative study of how other countries who elect their head of states handle the nomination process. I suspect there is no way to do it that is not screwed up.

    Of course the standard is direct election with a run off (or alternative vote) if there is no majority in the first round, not having two parties monopolize the process, which lessons the strain of the nomination process.

    For the situation in the United States, my own first preference is that the state parties choose their delegates to the national convention whenever they want to, during the four years of a presidential administration, however they want to. But there would be two conventions (which there in fact used to be) during the four years, one towards the beginning and one towards the end a few months before the election, with delegate selection scheduled between the two conventions. The first convention would nominate presumptive candidates for both President and Vice President. Before the second convention there would be a nationwide and well publicized poll of registered party members, with two yes or no questions about whether the party members wanted the presumptive nominees to be the party’s candidates for President and Vice President in the upcoming election. If the candidates were endorsed, they would be the nominees, otherwise the second convention would have to select replacements, and would hopefully try to figure out the reason for the vote of no confidence and to select candidates that they think the party members would be satisfied with.

    This would mean party insiders would pick the nominees, but regular party members could evaluate their performance as “leader of the opposition” (yes, this would give the USA a real leader of the opposition for the first time in its history) and reject them in time for the election and tell the insiders to come up with someone else. And insurgent campaigns would still be possible, they would aim to both get their delegates elected to the second convention and to convince ordinary party members to reject the establishment nominees.

    I think this would be more democratic than having an supposedly democratic system that is set up for party insiders to manipulate.

    For a less counter-intuitive alternative, have the convention select 2 – 4 candidates that the regular party voters choose from in a nationwide primary.

    For USA presidential elections, other than the difficulty that the president strictly speaking isn’t elected, is that the elections on paper and to a considerable extent in reality are conducted as fifty state elections happening at the same time (and in the past they weren’t all held on the same day). So there is no “national” nominee except in media coverage, what is actually happening is that each state party is nominating a set of pledged electors. So one problem with the obvious alternative of a nationwide primary is that it would be selecting a candidate for an election that technically isn’t happening. It could be done, but you really would have to arrange everything from the ground up, including coming up with some threshold to see who could run and get funds if there is public/ party financing (other countries seem to require a certain number of other elected officials to sign the nomination papers).

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