Did you have the chance over the weekend to read the cover story at Colorado Politics about “crunch time” for the Michael Bennet campaign? And while you are there, also check out the insightful story about Bennet’s “retail politics.” If you didn’t have the time, I suggest you read them now. Go head, I’ll just chat for a moment with my kindly editor. So, Kindly Editor, how’s tricks? (Kindly Editor: dude, really? Get back to work.)
Interesting articles, right? After the hard feelings that resulted from the 2016 presidential candidate selection process, the Democratic National Committee revised the rules — abolishing “super delegates” and other steps — that at least in theory made the entire process more open and fairer.
Enter 20-plus Dem candidates, and we see a few cracks in the system. On first blush, the system adopted by the DNC seems to make sense: Require certain measures of success, in the form of number of donors and at least a couple of percent in a couple of polls. I admit, I thought this was a good idea when it came out, but now I’m not sure whether the standard is too high or if the entire idea might be out of whack. Why?
In the Colorado Politics article, lots of smart folks across the political spectrum commented on how Bennet might be the strongest candidate the Democrats could nominate in terms of beating President Trump. Even George Will, the conservative columnist, argued the strengths of a Bennet campaign. (Full disclosure: I worked for Bennet as a Senate staffer for four years.)
Which brings me to the second article, about Bennet’s use of retail politics — wherein a candidate meets with as many voters as possible, does event after event, and kisses the occasional baby. I will note, however, that in my own 2008 campaign for Congress, I kissed no babies, but I digress .… (Ed: oh, really?)
What the DNC has actually done is to create a system wherein the strongest primary candidate may emerge on top, but the most electable candidate may not. Richard Nixon famously observed that voters in primaries tend to be significantly more extreme in their political views than the more typical general election voter. Nixon said to win the primaries and then win the general election, a Republican must “run right, then run center.” For a Dem, you may find more success on the farther left in terms of primary voters (cough … Elizabeth Warren … cough), but that doesn’t mean the nominee will have the best shot come November.
So Bennet headed to Iowa to meet and greet as many folks from that fine state as possible. Recall that Iowa doesn’t use a primary. Rather, Iowa (like 12 other states and three territories) uses the caucus model. If you haven’t been to a caucus event, I urge you to give it a try. You’ll find nice folks getting together in front rooms, classrooms and other community venues to talk about the candidates. Usually, one person speaks on behalf of each candidate, and then people “vote” by simply walking to the speaker for the candidate they prefer, and each group is counted. Thus, a primary is a solo and focused single act, while a caucus is more of a community act, where you and your neighbors talk, eat snacks and divide up into candidate groups. This is the system in which a candidate like Bennet can truly flourish, due to his clear message and direct style. But even if Bennet wows the folks in the caucus states, can he overcome the artificial barriers the DNC put up before him? We’ll see…
Back when Bennet ran the first time, I was chairman of the El Paso County Democratic Party, so when Bennet came to town, I was usually there. When he arrived for the first such event with me, I noted that he got out of his car and did not walk over to the groups of his supporters. Rather, he walked across the street to talk to the few protesters holding signs opposing his election. He talked with those folks for several minutes before coming back across the street to his event. He did that pretty much every time I saw him — reaching out first to those who disagree with him to talk and share ideas. Retail politics!
The DNC thought it was taking a significant step forward when it adopted the new system. And the concept is a good idea. But the Dems must tweak the system yet again, so very strong general election candidates are not all “weeded out” as the primaries march on. The goal is to win in November, not to have the smoothest-running primary season.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.