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The major American parties have ceded unprecedented power to primary voters.
Americans who tuned in to the first Democratic presidential debates this summer beheld a spectacle that would have struck earlier generations as ludicrous. A self-help guru and a tech executive, both of them unqualified and implausible as national candidates, shared the platform with governors, senators, and a former vice president. Excluded from the proceedings, meanwhile, were the popular Democratic governor of a reliably Republican state and a congressman who is also a decorated former marine.
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If the range of participants seemed odd, it was because the party had decided to let small donors and opinion polls determine who deserved the precious national exposure of the debate stage. Those were peculiar metrics by which to make such an important decision, especially given recent history.
Had the Democrats seen something they liked in the Republican primary? The Democrats in faced their own insurgency, by a candidate who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Democrat. And yet, after the election, the Democrats changed their rules to reduce the power of the party establishment by limiting the role of superdelegates, who had been free to support the candidate of their choosing at the party convention, and whose ranks had been filled by elected officials and party leaders.
Then, as the race began, the party deferred to measures of popular sentiment to determine who should make the cut for the debates, all but ensuring runs by publicity-hungry outsiders. Americans rarely pause to consider just how bizarre the presidential nominating process has become. No other major democracy routinely uses primaries to choose its political candidates, nor did the Founders of this country intend for primaries to play a role in the republican system they devised.
The two major parties made primaries decisive as recently as the early s. Republicans soon followed suit. Starting in , Democratic nominees included two vice presidents, three successful governors, and three prominent senators albeit one with little national experience. Republican nominees included a vice president, three successful governors, and two prominent senators. What often went unnoticed, however, was why the nominees were so impressive: Professional gatekeeping had survived informally, in the parallel vetting process known as the invisible primary.
To be competitive, they had to run a gantlet of party bigwigs, factional leaders, and money brokers. As recently as , four leading political scientists argued that, as the title of their book put it, the party decides. Then came Neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders changed the system all by himself.
Candidates have learned to bypass traditional moneymen by reaping donations online, tapping deep-pocketed tycoons, or just financing themselves.