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Fairness Or Decisiveness?

I'm on record as saying I don't think the drawn-out primary is likely to prove a major handicap to the Democrats in the fall. Nevertheless, it's pretty clear that most party leaders would prefer there to be a presumptive nominee by now. This raises the question: Is it better for a party to structure its primaries in what it considers to be the fairest way, or is it better to structure them to winnow the field down to a nominee as quickly and painlessly as possible?

It bears remembering, as Sanford Levinson notes, that the big primary-related headaches the Democrats ostensibly have are largely ones of their own making. If the Republicans used the same proportional representation system the Democrats did, their contest would almost certainly still be wide open. It's really astonishing how unfair the system that produced John McCain as the nominee is: It just so happened that several of his best states were winner-take-all while Romney's and Huckabee's good states were not. (Imagine how different the Democratic race would look if New York and New Jersey were winner-take-all.) More broadly, a winner-take-all system gives the appearance of enormous momentum to very narrow victories like McCain's 36-31 win over Romney in Florida, which earned him all the state's delegates. As a result, it winnows down the field rapidly. Opinions will vary as to whether this is a good idea--personally, I prefer the Democrats' system, though it's unclear why they need to allocate proportionally at the congressional-district level rather than statewide. But it was a conscious choice that each party made.

There's also the question of Florida and Michigan. These states are proving to be a major thorn in the Democrats' side, but only because the Democrats chose to defend their primary calendar, while the Republicans (in effect) decided not to. The penalty the GOP levied--removing half of those states' delegates--had no discernable impact on the amount of attention the media lavished on the Republicans' contests there, and didn't diminish their importance at all. Indeed, Florida ended up being the single most critical state in the Republican race this year, despite the fact that it wasn't supposed to vote when it did. The Democrats, meanwhile, are stuck with a popular Charlie Crist accusing them of not wanting to count all the votes.

Now, obviously, to the extent that having a presumptive nominee while the other party doesn't is a significant advantage (again, I don't really think it is, but that's the argument), the Republican system is better. And there's still the whole question of whether it's wise to assign the role to superdelegates that the Democrats do, which makes it even harder to arrive at a final verdict. But before Democats bemoan the fact that they don't have a nominee yet, they should consider the alternative. In a hard-fought contest with two popular candidates, there's a good deal to be said for fairness. If the Democrats had selected a nominee through a process as transparenly screwy as the GOP's, millions of Clinton or Obama partisans around the country would be (rightly) irate. My instinct is that that'd be an outcome far worse than what we have now.

--Josh Patashnik