The top echelons of both political parties, desperate to produce a presidential nominee quickly in 2016, seem determined to ignore the lessons of the recent past. If the 2008 and 2012 elections demonstrated anything, it’s that voters often resist premature coronations of candidates by insiders. And even when those insiders succeed in pushing a nominee through, they don’t guarantee wins for their party in the general election. Lengthy, grass roots-driven campaigns, though, can provide an invaluable service to voters and parties.
In 2012, top Republican donors tried to hasten the selection process by rallying behind Mitt Romney, bludgeoning his competition with a barrage of super PAC ads. Restore Our Future, the main pro-Romney super PAC, spent about $40 million on negative ads targeting other Republicans; at times during the primary, it was outspending the Romney campaign itself. GOP voters flirted with a succession of alternatives to Romney, but the overwhelming advantage created by his super PAC support hastened the exit of Romney’s competition, leaving many GOP voters frustrated with their lack of choices. The Republican super PACs got their way. Then Romney lost that November.
For the Democrats, on the other hand, the drawn-out 2008 primary ought to have demonstrated the value of widespread participation. Democratic donors rallied to Hillary Clinton early on. But the slog from state to state provided a much better testing ground than the party backrooms, exposing Clinton’s surprisingly brittle campaign organization. Barack Obama went on to win two successive presidential elections, both by comfortable margins, and passed health care reform, a goal that has eluded Democratic leaders for decades.
Now, some Democratic leaders are again trying to clear the field for Clinton long before the primaries even begin, with a top Democratic super PAC already backing her. Meanwhile, the Republicans are tweaking their rules to make it even easier for a well-funded candidate to wrap up the GOP nomination quickly. The parties would be better off staying on the sidelines and letting voters decide, even if it takes longer to produce a nominee. Party grandees overestimate the importance of a quick nomination — and their own ability to pick the right candidate.