LOS ANGELES — IT is a mystery. Why does the Democratic Party, the nation's largest, continue to lose elections for the White House?
After all, Democrats control the United States Senate. They dominate the House of Representatives by a huge margin. They occupy most mayors' offices. They hold most governorships. They run both branches of most state legislatures. So why can't they grab the biggest prize of all?
Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, puts it this way: Modern American politics is marked by the inability of Democrats to capture the White House, and the inability of Republicans to win anything else.
Susan Estrich, who ran Michael Dukakis's Democratic presidential campaign in 1988, points to one overriding problem for Democrats at the presidential level: the party's rules.
According to Ms. Estrich and other critics, the rules are fair to a fault. Democratic presidential candidates must fight longer than Republicans, against greater obstacles, to lock up their party's nomination. They must cater to more special interests and compromise their positions, sometimes on highly-charged issues.
Here's the problem. When Republicans hold a presidential primary, the rules are generally winner-take-all. Even if the winner has just 51 percent of the vote, he usually gets 100 percent of the delegates.
On the Democratic side, the winner gets a proportional share of the delegates, and the losers get all the rest. With as little as 15 percent of the vote, a Democratic candidate wins a substantial number of delegates to the national convention.
When the Republican winner shows up at the convention, he runs it. Nobody else can come unless he gives the okay. But when the Democratic winner shows up, so do all the losers and their delegates. He must negotiate with them, mollycoddle them. The Republican looks tough, the Democrat looks weak.
Ms. Estrich, who now teaches law at the University of Southern California, knows all about this problem - from both sides. She says that because of the rules, "the Democrats as a group are not playing presidential politics with the first team."
The rules, she says, "are terrible."
"When George Bush comes to a [Republican] convention, all the delegates are his," Estrich explains. "Pat Robertson [a Republican rival in 1988] can moan and groan all he wants, but his people don't get to go to the convention unless they go with Bush, because Bush owns the convention. He doesn't have to sit there and negotiate with failed candidates in July."
But the Democratic winner does. Ms. Estrich tells of her experience on the platform and rules committee in 1980, when she then represented a "failed" candidate, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, against President Jimmy Carter. Senator Kennedy had one-third of the delegates.
Estrich says: "I was so proud of myself. I had done my job [for Kennedy] so well. I was told to come up with as many minority reports as I could. I had 24 on the platform alone. I had calculated that there were 18 and 1/2 hours of debate to be had, and I had every hot-button issue in the Democratic Party. I had Israel, I had health insurance, I had kids, I had abortions, I had gay rights, I had everything....
"When I look back 12 years later, I have nightmares of ever meeting somebody like me on the other side of the platform table. I remember sitting across from Stu Eizenstat [Mr. Carter's representative]. He said to me, 'We will accept this platform report if you will change one word.' And I would ... say, 'No.' And he would say, 'What about just a punctuation change.' And I would say, 'It destroys the meaning.
The party undercuts its own candidates with such rules, she argues. It needs rules that allow a winner to defeat his rivals in the spring so that the summer can be used to unite the party and plot strategy.
Instead, in August, 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, whose campaign was then being run by Ms. Estrich, was still negotiating with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the losers. It was at that moment when Mr. Bush burst permanently into the lead over Mr. Dukakis.
Nelson Polsby, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, has written a book about all of this, "Consequences of Party Reform."
Dr. Polsby says the rules clearly are responsible for the anomalous situation in which Democrats win every major election except that for the White House.
"Everywhere you look, Democrats win 58 percent to 62 percent of all elections ... Congress, Senate, state asssemblies, state senates, local politics," he says.
But their problem in presidential races is lack of unity. As Will Rogers once noted: "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat."
The reforms were intended to recognize this breadth. But Polsby says they backfired by stripping Democrats of their coalition-building process and requiring factions to "fight it out."
Polsby sums it up this way:
"There's only one way to reshape the nominating race, and that's to change the rules so that state party leaders can get back in the game.
"Otherwise, it's simply a matter of these [candidates] mobilizing their factions, raising their money independently, running bitterly against one another until only one person is left semi-standing."
Democrats can never win that way, he argues. Tomorrow: Why the Democrats lost the 1988 presidential campaign.