THE TRUMPED AND THE BERNED: HOW THE FEW DEFEAT THE MAJORITY
Here is a problem: Thanks to reforms back around 1900, the parties, eager to escape party bosses, turned the right to choose their parties’ candidates over to “party members”. That reform has evolved in a way which makes it very difficult for today’s “out” party to compete when there is a presidential candidate already in office.
All those primaries and caucuses seem democratic. Ordinary Americans, acting as party members, are being given the chance to pick the candidates that they want. In the real world those ordinary Americans usually are not formally party members at all. And, they are not typical of other voters. The most actively conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats disproportionately come out to vote. That is particularly true of states using the caucus. Often only true believers are willing to face their angry neighbors and publicly stand for their candidate.
Think about the Democrats right now. They have seven major candidates competing. The candidate being touted as the front runner, Bernie Sanders, is probably unelectable. He is certainly being promoted by the White House establishment, and reportedly even by the Russians, because Donald Trump and his Russian boosters think that Sanders would be the easiest of the Democrats to defeat.
Bernie Sanders has developed a kind of cult following among younger people. Two days ago Sanders did really well in the Nevada caucuses. Candidates who develop a “movement” of devoted followers tend to do better than other candidates in caucus states. Their followers can take over and dominate small neighborhood caucuses. Voters supporting other candidates can be intimidated by their aggressive behavior. Bernie Sanders has faced considerable criticism for his less than dedicated effort to rein in his assertive young “Bernie Bros”.
In several ways, thanks to the primary system, this campaign is shaping up as a kind of reverse image of the one in 2016. In both cases there were multiple candidates: The Republicans initially had 17 candidates running in 2016, the Democrats had 22 this year. Each had an unconventional candidate whose followers formed a cult like “movement”. Each was outside the mainstream of the party he led. Donald Trump is hardly at heart a “real” Republican. He did become one in order to run in 2016. Bernie Sanders has never been a Democrat. Neither Trump nor Sanders seem temperamentally suited for the presidency.
Probably these kinds of candidates are inevitable. With the primary system the “out” party will have a large number of self-chosen candidates. A majority of those candidates are going to be “moderate” and politically conventional. The majority of all voters out there are certainly moderate too. The problem is that only a tiny minority of those moderates vote in primaries or in caucuses.
Many who do vote in primaries do so because they are angry and will respond to candidates who mobilize that anger. So, a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders can attract larger numbers of primary voters than any one of the candidates splitting the moderate vote (there are no raging moderates). And, because a candidate in primaries or caucuses can “win” simply by getting more votes than the multiple other candidates, candidates heading movements are more apt to win.
Critics might argue that extreme atypical candidates will not be able to win elections, that they will be democratically unelectable. That assumes that one of the candidates is moderate and therefore electable (something Joe Biden really hopes is true). But, in 2016 Donald Trump put together his cultish rally goers with traditional Republicans who dutifully voted and defeated moderate Hillary Clinton. Now in 2020 we may have one dedicated cult group running against another with no candidate campaigning to the moderate majority.
It was predictable that Donald Trump would be the Republican candidate. He is already in office. The economy seems to be doing well. Other national Republicans are scared to death of his cult like followers. But, why are the pundits predicting that Bernie Sanders, the 78 year old Democratic Socialist from tiny Vermont will be his Democratic opponent?
It is not because they think Sanders is popular or even electable (they will pretend that he is because readers like a horse race). It is because they understand that in each of the many remaining primaries and caucuses a tiny number of cultish primary voters can make one candidate the “winner”. With the moderate vote divided there is a good chance that that winner will be Bernie Sanders. They will also know that he will not be the one that the majority actually wanted.
So, there is a real possibility that both parties are going to end up with a candidate that the majority of them did not want. If that happens, one of them is going to win the presidency (someone has to win). Disappointed Republicans who are terrified about a second Trump victory will find their nightmare coming true. And Democrats who thought that opposing Trump could gain them an easy victory will find their worst fears confirmed. They nominated the wrong man. Both parties will be victims because a tiny minority of primary and caucus voters was allowed to decide!
If that happens, in this democracy, the majority will lose!