Maine GOP’s democratic reforms could boost Trump

Maine GOP’s democratic reforms could boost Trump

Maine’s Republican Party is trying a new innovation in their presidential nominating process, and it promises to be an exciting experiment in what is both worthwhile and disturbing in our partisan politics.

The Maine GOP Presidential Nominating Commission voted last week to greatly expand the number of voters who will help to decide the party’s candidate for president. It used to be that delegates to the national Republican convention were chosen only by those Maine GOPers who attend the state convention. Now, caucuses will be held all through the state, and all registered Republicans will get a chance to weigh in on the candidate of their choice.

The result of all this is that Maine’s Republican party is about to get more democratic, and we might want to remind ourselves now that this is a good thing.

Seriously, democracy can be unnerving, and sometimes can overwhelm the parties that play such a huge role in our system.

Let me give you an example. In 1968, the Democratic Party’s internal debates — between civil rights advocates and segregationists, “law and order” machine politicians and civil libertarians, cold war hawks and the anti-war movement — turned explosively violent, live, on national television, leaving the party reeling just before the elections. After Richard Nixon’s victory, the Democrats created a reform committee, the McGovern-Fraser Commission, to figure out what had gone wrong. The Commission’s basic prescription was “more democracy” — more power to rank-and-file voters to choose presidential candidates, and more transparency in state party nominating procedures. The result was the presidential system that we currently use — one in which candidates must woo likely partisan voters, not just state party leaders, in a long, grueling democratic free-for-all. More voters are involved in the process, and candidates are answerable to the electorate for months more than they used to be, and so, yes, the people are more involved in the process.

But reforms have consequences, and not always the ones we expect. Reform brought primary elections to most states, open caucuses to others, and that involved the rank-and-file voters. But all those primaries and caucuses means months and months of campaigning, and that takes money in a system without free advertising for candidates, and that means that candidates are less dependent on party elites, but much, much more dependent on campaign donors. For years, that entailed lengthy appeals to many sources of cash; since Citizens United, it means that a handful of billionaires can offer the hope of enough resources to endure over a year of state-by-state national campaigning.

Reform brought another unintended consequence. Party elites want to gather the most votes possible by election day, and so they have a bias toward candidates who will be broadly popular; party rank-and-file, on the other hand, have joined parties to achieve particular policy preferences, and they can get frustrated with the compromises that entails. Democracy in this case could mean more extreme candidates — those further to the left or right who are popular with their party’s base, but less appealing to the national electorate.

And that brings us back to 2016. No one, myself included, expected a candidate like Donald Trump — someone who clearly holds the job he is attempting to win in such complete contempt — to make it this far, but he is appealing to an energized, and rightist, core of the GOP base, and no one is more upset about it at the moment than GOP elites. More democracy in Maine’s GOP caucus, right before Super Tuesday, could thus provide a significant boost to the goofiest fascist since Adenoid Hynkel.

On the other hand, Maine’s GOP presidential nominating conventions have not been the strategic smoke-filled back rooms of pre-1968 America. The 2010 convention that gave us Paul LePage also passed a Tea Party platform that called for “the nation’s borders to be sealed and for the U.S. to return to ‘Austrian economics’.” 2012’s was a battlefield between Ron Paul supporters and party regulars. How much stranger could  the preferences of a broad section of the party get?

As we have learned since 1968, more democracy could be shocking and disturbing. But I think restraints on the process are never a good idea, and Maine voters agree. It’s time for more of us to make our voices heard, and so I applaud the Maine Republican Party’s decision. If the result is a nightmare, at least we’ll know it’s the nightmare that we’ve chosen for ourselves.

photo via Flickr/Gage Skidmore

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Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.

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