It is widely accepted in most democracies that party leaders have a right to control the process of nominating candidates for elective office. Here in the United States, however, this proposition is not merely controversial but downright unpopular.
Even the hint that superdelegates might exercise their voting rights under party rules to support a candidate other than the narrow leader in the pledged delegate count provoked accusations in both the 2008 and 2016 Democratic presidential nomination contests that insiders had "rigged" the system in order to silence the voice of the people. These complaints forced a chastened Democratic National Committee to enact limits to superdelegate power in order to protect its popular legitimacy. Republican politicians in 2016 similarly looked on helplessly as voters delivered the nomination to a candidate whom many believed at the time to be a generationally disastrous standard-bearer for their party. Despite this broadly-shared judgment, attempts to force an alternative outcome at the national convention had little energy and soon fizzled out entirely.
But it's too simplistic to view struggles over control of nominations as only pitting party bosses against regular citizens. As critics like Nelson W. Polsby observed decades ago, the post-1968 reforms that created the modern presidential nominating process actually transferred crucial influence from one set of elites—state party organizations—to another set—the news media. Because voters in party primaries habitually act with limited information and weak preferences, especially when the field expands to three or more contenders, they can be decisively swayed by the volume and tone of press attention devoted to each candidate.
The post-reform era is littered with presidential candidacies made and unmade by media coverage. Ed Muskie outpolled George McGovern in both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1972, yet the press treated McGovern like the winner in both cases, setting him on a path to the Democratic nomination. Jimmy Carter received a similar publicity boost after finishing behind an uncommitted slate of Iowa delegates in 1976. Reporters and commentators accepted Bill Clinton's self-proclaimed persona as the "comeback kid" at the expense of Paul Tsongas, the actual winner of the 1992 New Hampshire primary. In the 2000s, media favorites John McCain and Barack Obama benefited from sympathetic coverage while the unlucky Howard Dean became a media dartboard for the sin of screaming too loudly in a concession speech. Donald Trump attracted far more press attention than any other candidate in 2016, to the frustration of rivals who found it much harder to get their messages out to the public.
Journalists sometimes resist acknowledging their sizable influence over nominations, and may not always be fully conscious of the central role they can play in determining the outcome. But when party leaders attempt to assert power at the potential expense of the media, members of the press quickly rise to defend the prerogatives of themselves and their peers.
The Democratic National Committee announced this week that Fox News Channel would not be authorized to hold a debate among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, in the wake of reports confirming the de facto alliance between Fox News and the Trump White House. Rather than respect political leaders' judgment about how their own party's nomination process should operate, prominent journalists immediately blasted the DNC, vouching for their Fox News colleagues in the face of a perceived affront to their professional rectitude. Some even accepted the DNC's premise that Fox would treat Democratic candidates with more hostility than the other news outlets hosting debates in 2020, suggesting that the gauntlet of a Fox-organized debate was not a trap to be avoided but rather a test of character that the party was failing.
"If you can't answer questions—especially if they're not the questions you want asked—maybe you don't have good answers," snorted Jonathan Allen of NBC. "And if you aren't prepared for tough questions/subjects in a primary debate, how will you handle the general?" chided Zeke Miller of the Associated Press. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times preferred the ha-ha-you-suckered-yourself style of riposte: "it sends a message of being afraid of something. Which is what Trump feeds off in opponents."
Beneath this outburst of (self-)righteous indignation is a set of powerful assumptions: that the press—not voters or party leaders—properly holds the job of asking "tough questions" (and judging the worthiness of the answers) during the nomination process, and that televised debates are the most important venue for performing this critical task. Parties "expect the forums to produce infomercials that glorify their candidates, not journalistic grillings," taunted Jack Shafer of Politico, who went on to argue that any candidate who didn't want to participate in a debate sponsored by a disfavored cable network should "be disqualified from running" for the presidency—in case any doubt remained about where Shafer thinks the power to choose the nation's political leadership should rightfully reside.
One quirky attribute of American media culture is the consensus veneration of debates as a uniquely sacred exercise in civic enlightenment. The origin of this precept is somewhat mysterious; perhaps it's a romanticized legacy of Messrs. Lincoln and Douglas, or maybe it just reflects a collective belief that campaign events organized by the media are definitionally superior to those produced by the candidates and parties. In any case, a frank and unsentimental re-evaluation of its experiential soundness is decades overdue. It's not hard to recall important debates, or moments in debates, in both primaries and general elections. But nearly all of them involve candidate mannerisms, zingers, or gaffes (gaffe after gaffe after gaffe), not important substantive discussions or revelations. Is this really the best way to choose a president?
The Republican National Committee recently pondered this question as well. Republican leaders concluded that there were too many debates during the 2012 nomination season, which (in their view) gave an undeserved platform to secondary candidates while pushing their eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, into taking positions that were ultimately damaging to the party's general election chances (Romney's endorsement of "self-deportation" as an immigration policy, blamed in retrospect for costing him Latino support, was made during a Republican primary debate). In response, the RNC, like the DNC, acted after 2012 to limit the number of debates and take greater control of the sponsors and moderators.
The parties naturally perceive a strategic advantage in a nomination procedure that bolsters the chances of producing a nominee who can unify the party, be a formidable general election candidate, and possess the skills to govern successfully. But surely the American public would also be well-served by a choice of presidential candidates who possess such qualities. And it's not clear that the incentives governing the media's coverage of elections necessarily favor an equally desirable set of characteristics, despite the self-important proclamations of some self-appointed gatekeepers.
With the mixed track record of the media-dominated nomination process over half a century of history, perhaps both national committees deserve some deference to tinker strategically with aspects of the current system without facing attacks from journalists acting as if their personal honor has been outrageously besmirched by rank partisan interlopers. For some, it may not be easy to conceive of a situation where the interest of the public is not aligned by definition with that of the press, or is instead more closely matched with that of the perennially-maligned party organizations. But as Nina Simone used to sing, "it be's that way sometime."