EMU professor gives talk on primary selection system

Wednesday, January 29, 2020 - 10:34pm

Professor Jeffrey Bernstein discusses the process of nominating a democratic candidate for president at the Kellogg Eye Center Wednesday night.

Professor Jeffrey Bernstein discusses the process of nominating a democratic candidate for president at the Kellogg Eye Center Wednesday night. Buy this photo
Julia Schachinger/Daily

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute hosted a talk by Professor Jeffrey Bernstein titled “The 2020 Democratic Nomination: Who Gets to Choose, the Parties or the Voters?” on Wednesday at the Kellogg Eye Center auditorium. The event was attended by more than 100 members of the University of Michigan community. 

Bernstein is an award-winning professor of political science at Eastern Michigan University. The talk focused on the evolution of the nomination process, the transfer of power from the parties to voters over time and the implications of this transfer. 

Bernstein began by explaining the importance of such talks in the current political climate. 

“I think we’re living in a time right now where neutrality and sitting on the sidelines and looking at politics and saying, ‘Someone else can handle it: that’s not my thing,’ I don’t think we’re there right now,” Bernstein said. “These are highly charged and very interesting political times, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to be here and talk a little bit about what’s going on and a little bit about what’s happening in the world.”

Bernstein elaborated on the basic differences in the rule-setting procedures for nominations between the Republican and Democratic Parties, highlighting the relatively dynamic nature of the Democratic nomination process. 

“The Republican Party has a rule: that nomination procedures for the next election get dealt with at the Convention,” Bernstein said. “The Democrats are able to change the rules and continually evolve the rules. That creates a problem — it creates a challenge, a moving target really, for figuring out what the Democrats are doing and who stands to gain or to lose from it.”

One of the aims of the event was to inform the audience about the way the Democratic nomination process has evolved over time. Bernstein explained the transfer of power from the delegates at the Democratic National Convention to the voters by referencing the events of the 1968 Democratic Convention, when Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., challenged incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson. 

“Eugene McCarthy did something that was not unprecedented but relatively unusual,” Bernstein said. “He challenged a sitting president of his party for the nomination. A whole bunch of people … went to New Hampshire, campaigned for McCarthy and McCarthy ended up winning 42 percent of the vote. Which is, of course, a loss, but a shockingly large percentage of the vote to receive when you are running against an incumbent president.”

Bernstein further elaborated on the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, including the creation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, a commission created to examine the rules of nomination and broaden participation in the nomination process. 

“It may not be a coincidence that the McGovern of the McGovern-Fraser Commission was the George McGovern who actually got the next Democratic Party nomination,” Bernstein said. “And George McGovern was not the kind of person that the delegates were likely to nominate. You needed to open it up, you needed to get the voice of the people in there, to really give McGovern a shot at getting the nomination.” 

Community member Marilyn Warner attended the event and reflected on the implications of the shift to a more voter-centric nomination process. 

“I think it’s always a good thing to put the power in the people’s hands,” Warner said. “But on the other hand, I think we all have concerns about … misinformation, and about how people are so divided … I think I’m further left than the people we need to coalesce to win this election … I’m concerned that if there is no leadership that says to move forward to where we want to be, we can’t go that far to the left.”

LSA senior Katherine Nachazel told The Daily she was concerned about corruption in the Democratic Party’s nomination process. 

“I always think that getting power out of the elites and back into the hands of the people and individuals is a good idea,” Nachazel said. “However, I do think that there is widespread party corruption still happening. If you look at 2016, we saw a lot of suspicious activity going on with the Clinton campaign as far as working with the DNC to kind of corral their efforts to support her campaign before the primary was over.” 

When talking about the ways in which voters choose the nominee, Bernstein introduced two roles in which voters may view the party. The first is known as “parties as vote maximizers,” in which electing candidates who are most likely to win in inter-party races is seen as the priority. 

“In a heavily gerrymandered country, like we live in, there are certain seats that are going blue no matter what, certain seats that are going red no matter what,” Bernstein said. “The turnover happens in the purple districts. Abigail Spanberger would argue, and I think she makes a good deal of sense on this point: you don’t win a purple district by running a Bernie Sanders of AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) Club.” 

The alternate role parties may play in this process is known as “parties as policy maximizers,” in which voters choose the candidate who is most likely to advance policy objectives that the voters believe in.  

“(The view is that) we want to win elections,” Bernstein said. “But how much is it worth winning an election if we really can’t put in a policy that we believe in? We want the party to stand for a policy we believe in, and that’s what we’re using our vote for.”

Bernstein also explained the “party decides” theory, a theory that places more power in the hands of the party elites. The theory is elaborated on in “The Party Decides,” an influential book in political science by Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller. 

Bernstein also talked about what the Democrats will have to do in order to beat incumbent President Donald Trump in the general election in 2020.

“If you look at Trump it (his approval rating) is a flat line. Those that love him, love him, and nothing it seems is going to tear them away,” Bernstein said. “You have to have somebody to beat somebody. The Democrats have to manage to be Donald Trump with somebody.”