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Bernie Sanders thinks the Democratic primary process ‘distorts reality.’ Does history back this up?

- April 17, 2016

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont recently said his party’s presidential primary process “distorts reality.” Specifically, Sanders criticized the timing of the Democrats’ primary schedule, which front-loads a considerable number of Southern state primary contests. In Sanders’s view, this schedule’s problem lies in the fact that states unlikely to vote Democratic in the general election have provided a series of early successes for his rival Hillary Clinton.

Sanders’s criticism raises a question: If a political party is not really competitive in a state, why would that party give that state a role in selecting its presidential nominee? A little history tells us why.

Sanders is not the first politician to complain about the influence of “non-competitive states” in the presidential-nomination process. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Republican Party was almost entirely shut out of the then-Democratic “Solid South,” leaders from the Northeast frequently complained about Southern representation at the GOP national conventions.

For example, in 1899, a Republican National Committee member from Wisconsin, Henry Clay Payne, questioned why “the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, casting 200,076 Republican votes at the last Presidential election, should have 124 delegates in the National Convention, while New Jersey, casting 221,367 Republican votes, should have but twenty delegates?”

One explanation is simply that this is how parties have always managed their conventions. Since 1848, the Democrats have provided each state with delegates to their national conventions. The Republican Party — founded as the anti-slavery party — was a little slower to catch on. In the GOP conventions of 1856 and 1860, delegates from Southern states were not represented. But after the Civil War, the Republicans also incorporated these states.

Parties also hope that non-competitive states will help them select candidates with broad, national appeal. Presidential candidates have to be competitive not just in “safe” states but also in states that the party lost in a previous election. This way, they may not only capture a swing state but also help (or at least not hurt) candidates from their party who are running for other offices.

Non-competitive states were afforded a role at party conventions for one other reason: Party leaders used to rely on these non-competitive states to help them win convention majorities.

As our research shows, Republican Party leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries maintained active party organizations in the South, even though the party had little to no chance of winning elections there. Republican leaders such as William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft invested considerable money — in the form of patronage and bribes — to keep these organizations afloat. The goal was to create a reliable voting base at the conventions.

This approach generally paid off: At several conventions, Southern delegates — who generally voted together — were pivotal on a number of important votes. For example, Southern delegates decided President Benjamin Harrison’s hotly contested re-nomination in 1892, leading Republican Party boss Matthew Quay to conclude that “‘the President has been renominated by the powers which cannot give him an electoral vote.”

Over time, though, non-competitive states have played a lesser role in convention politics. This is partly because parties have changed how delegates are allocated to states.

Throughout the 19th century, both parties pegged states’ convention delegates to the number of electoral votes that they were allocated in the general election. But the South’s role in the bitterly contested 1912 nomination fight between Taft and Roosevelt led the Republican Party to assign delegates based on both the size of states and the party’s strength there. Democrats followed suit in 1948.

While the formula for delegate allocation is different for each party, and has changed frequently, both parties now reward states that voted for their presidential and down-ballot candidates in the last election with more delegates than those states that did not.

What, then, of Sanders’s criticism of the scheduling of Southern primaries in the Democratic Party?

As political scientist Josh Putnam has noted on his blog Frontloading HQ, conspiracy theories regarding the timing of the Democrats’ Southern primaries are largely overblown. In the 1980s, Southern party leaders tried to push up their primary dates to make the party competitive in the South in general elections, not to keep more “radical” candidates like Jesse Jackson from winning the nomination.

Indeed, in recent years, the logic for holding Southern primaries early has mostly been to give black voters, who make up a considerable part of the Democratic electorate in the South as well as nationally, an earlier say in the candidate-selection process.

Sanders’s criticism also ignores another key fact: The “red” states that have influenced the Democratic primary process so far are not exclusively Southern. Of the 16 states that Romney won in 2012 by 55 percent of the vote or more, 10 are outside of the traditional South. In those states, which have already held caucuses or primaries, Sanders has performed very well, winning Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.

It is unlikely that a Democratic presidential candidate will win any of those states in the general election. Nevertheless, Sanders’s victories there have helped shape the narrative of “a major campaign comeback” in recent weeks.

Although Sanders fails to acknowledge that he too benefits from the inclusion of non-competitive states in the selection process, his criticism raises reasonable questions about how U.S. political parties deal with states that are not likely to support their candidate in the general election.

Should such states get a say in intra-party decisions at all? If so, how many delegates should they get? And, in the case of the primaries, when do they get to have their say?

While it is understandable that Sanders is frustrated with Clinton’s success in the South, there are no obvious right or wrong answers to those questions — and certainly none that will please all of the candidates and their supporters.

Boris Heersink is a PhD student in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and a national fellow at the Miller Center.

Jeffery A. Jenkins is a professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and co-author of “Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government.”