Bernie's not alone: US parties have long favored insider candidates

Bernie supporters are angered by what they see as a lack of democracy in the primary process. But the nominating process today is far more open than it used to be – may too open, say some.

Neal Menschel
Bernie Sanders speaks at the Democratic National Convention in the Wells Fargo Center on July 25, 2016, in Philadelphia.

The outsider Democratic presidential candidate was becoming too popular with voters. He had to be stopped, party leaders decided. So they manipulated the system against him. Delegates lined up to support the inside party favorite. The insider won handily at the Democratic National Convention, held in the heat of a big northern US city.

2016? Nope. 1952. Bernie Sanders isn’t alone.

Just prior to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July, Sanders supporters were outraged by leaked emails showing the Democratic National Committee favored Hillary Clinton over the senator from Vermont. The uproar ousted DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz. It fed the raucous atmosphere at the start of the 2016 DNC.

But maybe the Bernie brigades shouldn’t have been surprised. Meddling in the choice of presidential nominees has long been one of the main national activities of Democratic and Republican Party leaders.

Throughout most of US history, the party bosses simply got together and picked their standard-bearer. That’s the origin of the clichéd phrase “smoke-filled room.”

In the modern era, the rise of primaries and caucuses has undercut that tradition. But it hasn’t done away with it entirely. In some ways, the old style of top-down party dominance is coming back. That might be one of the lessons of the DNC email fracas.

“21st-century voters, accustomed to the importance of presidential primaries, find the old-fashioned nomination system very undemocratic,” writes Elaine Karnack, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, in her book “Primary Politics.”

In this context the 1952 Democratic race might be instructive. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee played the part of Bernie Sanders. A progressive for his time and state, Kefauver campaigned in primaries wearing a coonskin cap and sometimes riding a dog sled. Famous for leading a televised Senate probe of organized crime, he won in New Hampshire and then mushed his way to victory in 12 of that year’s 15 Democratic primaries.

But incumbent President Harry Truman despised him. Privately he called Kefauver “Cowfever.” Truman worked to recruit other candidates into the race. Kefauver arrived at the Democratic convention in Chicago a few hundred delegates short of a majority, and by the time the smoke-filled rooms cleared, Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson was the nominee, with Truman himself playing a key role in the outcome.

Since then primaries and popular votes have become more central to the nomination process. That apogee of this trend was probably the early 1970s, with outsiders George McGovern and Jimmy Carter winning Democratic nominations, and in Carter’s case, the presidency itself.

Then the parties – particularly the Democrats – struck back. Reforms created “superdelegates," insiders intended to beat back challenges from insurgent or unsuitable hopefuls. The current era has seen the rise of the so-called “Invisible Primary," in which contenders vie for donors and party support before voting actually starts.

Will the rise of Donald Trump accelerate the reassertion of party control? If he loses, it well might. But if he wins? Probably not.

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