The US Democratic presidential primary race has outgrown the worn cliches about Game of Thrones.
We’re now onto something new: the legend of Goldilocks, the lost girl who stumbles upon a bear family’s home in the woods and samples their beds, porridge and chairs, looking for the best fit.
In the fairy tale’s new incarnation, Goldilocks is the anxious Democratic voter, desperate to pick just the right candidate who can vanquish the Big Bad Wolf in White House.
The selecting, which began two weeks ago, isn’t going so well. First there was the vote-counting debacle in the farm state of Iowa, then the inconclusive results from frigid, flinty New Hampshire a week later.
Everyone knew going in that the Democrats’ intraparty progressive-vs-moderate showdown would take a while, but the primary process itself is suddenly revealing its limitations and eccentricities, making any resolution that much further away.
NEW: "The underlying data, the raw data, is secure. It was always secure."
— ABC News (@ABC) February 4, 2020
To those unschooled in the US primary system, a bit of history: until the late 1960s, presidential candidates were chosen largely by party leaders in the “smoke-filled rooms” of yore at party national conventions before the general election.
The few primaries that did exist rewarded candidates with delegates, but their support at the convention was non-binding. The system – heavy with favour-trading and influence-peddling – worked, but it was nobody’s idea of democracy.
So Democrats, after losing the 1968 election amidst bitter divisions over Vietnam and civil rights, embarked on a series of reforms, chief among them the selection of the party’s nominating delegates not by party mandarins but by rank-and-file Democrats in state primary elections.
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The idea was to find candidates the entire party could unite around.
The result was that unknown hopefuls, if they put in the time shaking hands and eating corn fritters in Iowa and New Hampshire (long the first voting states but now much more important as a result of the new rules), could slingshot to national attention.
That worked for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and for Bill Clinton in 1992.
The new system seemed fairer and more transparent. Beginning in February, the candidates would move from state to state, demonstrating their mettle, their retail politicking, their ability to raise money and organise staffs, their command of local and national issues.
With each primary, the successful ones would rack up votes that translated into the delegates needed for the nomination.
Voters had a few months to take the measure of each candidate. The whole thing was designed to wrap up by early summer, with one candidate emerging with enough delegates to secure the nomination at the convention. Then it was off to fight the general election.
But today, the quaint routines of the early primaries seem inadequate to the task.
Iowa and New Hampshire voters may reward candidates who put in the time, but those states have always been too small and too white to be representative of the broader US.
Nevertheless, those states’ influence – particularly among a frenzied media desperate for any real voting to commence –only seems to grow.
Rather than clarifying the race, these early states have only made things more muddled. Take Joe Biden. The former vice-president had consistently led in most national polls, in spite of his unsteady performance on the campaign trail.
But national polls are of little relevance when the voting is coming from just one state. Biden hoped to coast past Iowa and New Hampshire and concentrate on South Carolina – and its large pool of black voters – later in February. But his early showings have been so poor, and so magnified in the press, that it may be implausible to expect that the African-Americans will sustain their support.
Better to dispatch Biden early, some say, rather than later. But what happens now?
Meanwhile, small-city mayor Pete Buttigieg from Indiana followed the Carter model to a T, and it paid off with two second-place finishes. But he is seen as weak with minority voters, and his finish in South Carolina and Nevada (almost 30 percent Latino) is uncertain.
So what about Bernie Sanders, the most far-left candidate in the pack? His support among minority voters is also suspect. And there is a growing clamour – earlier and louder than most cycles – among party moderates that his strain of progressive politics is just too radical for most Americans, and that Trump would crush him in November.
Some observers say the problem with the primary system is that it’s too much democracy: too many candidates, inconclusive votes, internecine squabbles.
After all, that’s how Donald Trump managed to vanquish over 16 other Republicans in 2016. Maybe it’s time, they say, to give some power back to professional party leaders.
Those Democrats see a potential saviour in former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose post-partisan vibe and vast wealth has allowed him to ignore the small early states. Instead, he is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on TV advertising in the 14 states that hold primaries on March 3, hoping to leapfrog over Sanders, Buttiegieg and anyone else who might have inched forward in Nevada and South Carolina.
This election isn't just historic, it's urgent. And tonight, we look forward knowing this is our one shot not just to end the era of Donald Trump, but to launch the era that must come next.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) February 12, 2020
Bloomberg’s approach is both practical, opportunistic and a bit cynical. Why waste time in tiny, frozen states shaking hands when he can buy eyeballs in multiple states at once?
Who cares about retail politics in high school gymnasiums?
His campaign spending is so vast and bottomless as to dwarf any rival. He has little interest in the rituals of the endless campaign odyssey. He is attempting to manipulate, with his money, a system designed to drive democracy from the ground up.
— Mike Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) February 13, 2020
It’s safe to say this wasn’t what the reformers were looking for in 1968.
But as the results from other states continue to splinter, Bloomberg’s is increasingly seen as the only one around whom the party can coalesce, with the campaign resources that can crush Trump in November.
And as a self-made billionaire who ran the nation’s largest city for 12 years, he seems relatively immune to whatever insults Trump is amassing against him.
It’s not anywhere near over, but perhaps this primary system – hobbled and aged as it is – may just yield a result both party elders and rank and file voters can accept.
Goldilocks might get what she’s looking for after all.