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How to Win a Presidential Primary

With Iowa in the rearview mirror, New Hampshire dead ahead, and miles and miles of nominating contests to go, the Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamarck has performed a valuable service by getting into the weeds, describing the mechanics of how America picks its presidential nominees, and explaining how we got here. Primary Politics leads the reader to conclude that process is policy.

Kamarck convincingly argues that the primary calendar, sequence, and rules have an outsized impact on who gets nominated and when the primary season comes to a close. Sheexamines nearly a half-century of contests to bolster her conclusions, and speaks with the authority that comes from firsthand experience. Kamarck was Walter Mondale’s 1984 director of delegate selection, and watched Mondale, who would become the Democratic nominee, clumsily navigate the shoals of the party’s rules and its changing demographics. As the book frames it, “for all of his understanding of the new rules,” Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, was “at heart, an old-fashioned party machine candidate.”

Among the contests that also count as teachable moments, Kamarck recounts Barack Obama’s 2008 primary victory, and Ronald Reagan’s 1980 capture of the Republican nod or, more precisely, how Hillary Clinton and George H.W. Bush each lost by not internalizing the math and mechanics of delegate selection.

Although a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House and Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, Kamarck commendably puts distance between herself and her subjects. In the case of Hillary Clinton in 2008, the book depicts an unprepared campaign that had gorged itself on piles of cash one day, only to find itself broke the day after. After noting that Democrats were clamoring for change, while Clinton was still touting her own inevitability, Kamarck takes Team Clinton to task for its “lack of a delegate strategy.”

515As64jqKL._SL250_According to Kamarck, Iowa in 2008 did not have to become Clinton’s Waterloo. Rather, Iowa was a symptom of the Clintons not absorbing the reality that 2008 was not 1992. Specifically, it wasn’t just a lack of sustained momentum that undid Clinton, but her cumulative failures to actively contest post-Iowa caucuses, properly husband the campaign treasury, and comprehend that the Democrats lacked winner-take-all primaries. Because Democratic Party rules mandated proportional representation—with delegate allocation mirroring the popular vote—scoring a knock-out blow against Obama was impossible unless Clinton had strung together a string of early primary wins. Which did not happen.

Thus, as a matter of numerical certainty, their race was destined to result in Clinton getting the short-end of a long mathematical slog. Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination on June 3, 2008, after pocketing the endorsements of about 60 “super delegates.” By contrast, on the Republican side, John McCain had wrapped up the nomination three months earlier, on March 4, 2008, with wins in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

To put things in context, if winner-take-all primaries were permitted under Democratic Party rules (which they were not), Kamarck argues that Clinton might have finished first with 1,899 delegates to Barack Obama’s 1,511. Instead, Obama triumphed by a 124 delegate margin, 1,764 to 1,640. Process had prevailed.

As for George H.W. Bush in 1980, Kamarck contends that his campaign hamstrung itself by not competing for delegates wherever, whenever, and however possible. After defeating Reagan in the Iowa Caucuses, the Bush campaign stalled after it lost to Reagan in New Hampshire. On top of going on and on about “Big Mo” following his Iowa win, Bush and his campaign were not ready for what would come next.

The fact is that primaries are a lot like the lottery—you have to be in them to win them. Yet the 1980 Bush operation did not necessarily field the maximum number of delegate slates. For example, in the 1980 New York Republican Primary, 34 Reagan delegates ran unopposed. Back then, as a 20-year-old undergraduate, I was honored and thrilled to run (unsuccessfully) as a Bush delegate from Brooklyn, and remember going door-to-door to gather signatures for our delegate slate. But my chill-filled experience also spoke to the fact that contesting Reagan in New York was a last minute decision.

The narrative in next-door Pennsylvania appeared to be different, but the outcome was ultimately the same. There, Bush won the beauty-contest primary 54 to 45, but fell asleep when it came to the all-important delegate contest. Reagan pocketed 50 delegates, but Bush garnered fewer than 20. Headlines can be great, but hard counts are even better.

Not surprisingly, the lessons taught by primaries past are not always learned. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani, by then New York City’s former mayor, acted as if history was irrelevant. Giuliani thought that he could skip early contests and still snag the Republican nomination. For all intents and purposes, Giuliani bypassed the Iowa Caucus, kept out of the South Carolina Primary, and put all of his chips down in Florida. Suffice it to say, Giuliani finished third in the Sunshine State, and before February had even begun, he was out of the race. For the record, no Republican in the modern era has ever won the nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire, and only Mitt Romney in 2012 made it to the finish line first without having South Carolina in his “W” column.

Kamarck keenly observes that the parties’ respective rules reflect the individual psyches of each party. She describes how the outsized presence of women and minorities within the Democratic coalition has made proportionality an essential fact of that party’s primaries, and notes how individual states have less leeway in shaping the rules governing their respective primaries. The influence of the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s spelled the demise of a closed system of selecting delegates and candidates, with Hubert Humphrey being the last person to be selected as a nominee without ever having entered a single primary in 1968.

By contrast, among Republicans, efficiency is a greater virtue, so the states have more of a say in how primaries are conducted, and the Republican National Committee can be made to look like a bystander. Still, the Republicans too have made their nominating process a battle for winning hearts, minds, and delegates.  

Finally, the author grapples with the question of what makes a strong candidate, as opposed to what goes into being a capable president. Without delving into specifics, Kamarck is mindful that the two qualities are not identical. Indeed, after the last 15 years it is hard to escape the question. Yet in 2016, there is no apparent solution or candidate in sight.

In the end, John Dingell’s rule of politics still holds. As the Michigan Democrat who served 59 years in Congress bluntly said, “I’ll let you write the substance … you let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.”

Lloyd Green was an alternate delegate to the 1988 Republican National Convention, opposition research counsel to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.

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