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March 20, 2015

We here at MassPoliticsProfs are in the process of reassessing the way the Massachusetts Democratic and Republican Parties go about nominating statewide candidates. Professor Ubertaccio describes the project in this Patriot Ledger op-ed. The first of several panel discussions in our “Party Matters” series was held on March 5th in Boston and a second will be convening at UMass, Amherst this spring.Have the Bay State’s party organizations denied ordinary voters (enrolled and unenrolled) their rightful place in statewide elections? Do party nominations rules help or hurt party nominees in the general election?

The 2014 gubernatorial election in Massachusetts witnessed discontent over nomination rules and the influence of “party insiders” on both sides of the aisle. Both state parties faced intra-party division related to the 15% rule, which requires candidates seeking a party nomination in Massachusetts to win at least 15% of the delegate votes at the party endorsement convention in order to appear on the party’s primary ballot.The MassGOP recently settled a lawsuit filed by Tea Partier Mark Fisher, who believed that “party insiders” had robbed him of this chance by intentionally miscounting votes at the 2014 GOP convention.Though the MassGOP did include him on the primary ballot, Fisher’s lawsuit went forward and he extracted his pound of flesh.The enforcement of the 15% rule at the state’s Democratic convention cost two prominent candidates their chance to appear on the Democratic primary ballot, despite what many considered sufficient statewide support to justify presenting their candidacies to the entire Democratic primary electorate.

Much of the controversy in Massachusetts last year centered on the 15% rule, but the argument about this particular rule holds important implications for a much larger and more important debate in both state and nation. How much power should party organizations have over party nominations?Should party organizations (P.O.) be allowed to limit the number of candidates seeking the party’s nomination prior to the vote of the entire party membership (what political scientists call the party-in-the-electorate, or P.I.E.)?

In the Bay State, the question is about the balance of power within political parties between the members who actively participate in party organizational life before, during, and after elections (P.O.) and those whose party activity is limited to voting in primary elections (P.I.E). Should “party insiders” choose nominees, or should ordinary voters (including “unenrolled” voters in MA) have that responsibility at the polls on Primary Election Day?This is by no means a just Massachusetts issue.The power of party organizations in elections is under attack nationwide. As I write this, a lawsuit filed by the Independent Voter Project is being heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia.Plaintiffs argue that New Jersey’s closed primary system is unconstitutional because it essentially privatizes statewide elections by allowing access to general election ballots to be effectively monopolized by the two major parties. Voters not enrolled in one of the parties are, on this account, effectively disenfranchised because in order for their votes to be meaningful they must choose between partisan candidates who earned their position on the ballot without input from non-partisan voters.

Efforts to empower “independent” voters and reduce partisanship in elections and governance have gained considerable steam in recent years.General disgust with polarizing partisanship has given life to organizations such as “No Labels” and “Independent Americans Unite,” which aim at empowering voters who want “problem solving, not partisan bickering.” According to the latest Gallup Poll, only 37% of Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party, while only 39% see the Democratic Party in a favorable light. According to Gallup, this is the first time both party’s favorability ratings were below 40% since at least 1992. In this environment, calls to weaken party organizations as a means of increasing the power of ordinary voters are ubiquitous, and are even treated frequently as too obvious to merit debate.

Just three days after the 2014 election the Boston Globe editors declared, “It’s time to reform nominating rules.” Among their targets was the 15% rule adhered to by both parties in Massachusetts. Echoing their own political columnists, the Globe editors argued that state party rules “routinely deprive the public of a wide range of choices when the time comes to vote.” They flatly labeled the 15% rule “an undemocratic step” in the nomination process and implied that this procedural hurtle (along with the absence of run off voting in primaries and the timing of primary elections, contributed to the defeat of Democratic nominee Martha Coakley by Republican Charlie Baker.The November 7th editorial concluded: “Losing the election on Tuesday ought to provide the Democrats with the nudge they need to get started.” The Globe editors’ implication here is that present nominating rules are both undemocratic and counter-productive for the eventual party nominees.According to the Globe’s editors, taking away the party conventions’ ability to keep candidates off the primary ballot, changing state law to provide for run-offs in primary elections, and moving the date of the primary to the spring or early summer of an election year will empower ordinary voters and in so doing help to rehabilitate parties and their nominees in the minds of ordinary voters.

Interestingly, the last time a significant effort was made to reassess party nomination rules in the Bay State was after the last Democratic gubernatorial election defeat in 2002, when Evander Holyfield sparring partner Mitt Romney defeated Democratic State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien in the race for the Corner Office.The 15% rule was also a target for advocates of reform in the wake of that election. In 2004, writing about the damage done to Democrat Shannon O’Brien’s general election prospects by the nomination contest in 2002, I argued that “the state’s Democratic Party staged a fight for the soul of the party and the party lost.”I wrote:

By the time of the Democratic nominating convention in the spring of 2002 there were five Democrats vying for the top job. The convention, held in Worcester, would turn out to be one of the worst in recent memory. Instead of narrowing the field to produce a coherent debate between viable candidates, the party convention ended with all five candidates making the primary ballot. Through a Byzantine web of deals struck at the convention by the campaigns of millionaire businessman Steve Grossman, Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and Clean Elections candidate Warren Tolman, all three would join frontrunners State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien and State Senate President Tom Birmingham on the primary ballot. The large field would doom the party’s most experienced candidate (Birmingham) in the primary election, and ultimately doom its nominee (O’Brien) in the general election.

Recognizing that the nomination rules may have contributed to their loss in 2002, the State Democratic Committee appointed a special commission to study the issue of nomination reforms. The number one recommendation of the commission headed by Governor Mike Dukakis and Congressman Jim McGovern was to strengthen the 15% rule by requiring candidates to get the required percentage of the delegates’ support on the convention’s first ballot. O’Brien’s defeat was linked (correctly in my view) to a failure of the party convention to sufficiently cull the field for primary voters; a failure made possible by the well-established practice at Massachusetts Democratic conventions of major candidates cutting deals with minor candidates to provide sufficient delegate votes to gain access to the primary ballot on subsequent ballots, after major candidates had achieved their own delegate vote goals on the first ballot.

In the particular context of the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nomination fight the 15% rule end up hurting the party’s nominee in the general election.The ease with which all five 2002 candidates earned the required 15% support at the convention facilitated a more intense primary election campaign in which primary voters were faced with less clear choices. One of the five candidates whose name appeared on the 2002 Democratic primary ballot, Steve Grossman, had withdrawn his candidacy prior to the primary election but too late for his name to be removed from the ballot. A weak 15% rule had effectively prevented the party from presenting primary voters with a nomination contest between viable candidates engaged in a coherent debate.Five candidate-centric campaigns engaged in an increasingly acrimonious and personal contest that left the winner crippled by bad press and without the active and enthusiastic support of her primary election opponents in the fall campaign.

With the new requirement that candidates get 15% support on the first convention ballot, Democrats nominated first-time candidate for elective office Deval Patrick in 2006, and re-nominated governor Patrick in 2010. The 2006 Convention resulted in a three candidate primary election field that included State Attorney-General Tom Reilly, Businessman and former Lt. Gov. and congressional candidate Chris Gabrielli, and Deval Patrick.

Calls for eliminating the 15% rule during and after the 2014 election may be justified as a way to improve the balance of power between rank-in-file voters registering their preferences in primary elections and the party activists and insiders who dominate the party caucuses and conventions, but recent experience on the Democratic side strongly suggests that the impact of the 15% rule on the success of the Party’s nominee depends entirely on the particular contexts of each election.If Juliette Kayyem and Joe Avellone had been on the primary ballot, it is certainly possible that Steve Grossman could have ended up the nominee, and had he been the nominee, it is certainly possible that he would have won in November.However, it is also quite possible that a crowded 2014 field would have had the same impact on the Democratic nominee as it did in 2002, leaving Grossman or Coakley with a sharply divided activist base and a decided lack of enthusiasm from supporters of the losing Democratic candidates. It’s not hard to imagine many such disgruntled Democrats sitting on their hands, or even casting ballots for a pro-choice, pro-gay rights Massachusetts Republican.

the 15% rule, 2014 election, MassGOP, MassDems

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