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Contested conventions would be much better than pageants

Both parties would nominate better candidates if they could really make the decision at the convention.

John Moore/Getty Images

This week, I have a piece in the New York Times singing the praises of contested conventions. It being an op-ed, I didn't have the space to elaborate on some of the details. So I thought I'd do that here.

The short version of the argument is this: A convention of unbound delegates would be a great way to choose a nominee. And we could get that, at least sometimes, if the parties used proportional representation and a shortened calendar. Then if we had a divided field, each would be represented at the convention in proportion to their popularity. But this would require taking delegate selection seriously.

This post is the first in a three-part series. See parts II and III.

Part I: Why are contested conventions so great? It's the delegates.

Simply put, the task of choosing a nominee is a tricky one. It generally involves choice on two questions. First, who would be the best possible president (or holder of whatever office)? And second, who would be the best possible candidate in an election for that office?

In a general election, the second question is irrelevant. Even if someone appears to be bad at campaigning, you choose him if you want him in office. But for nominations, parties realize that the person they want the most might not be able to win. They need both.

And even if the choice weren't complicated, it becomes tricky when we have more than two choices.

The problem is that the candidate who gets the most votes is not necessarily preferred by a majority to the rest of the field. A majority might prefer another candidate, but their vote is split among several choices.

Suppose, in a simplified but not completely crazy hypothetical, that 40 percent of the party prefers Donald Trump and 20 percent each prefers John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. Trump wins. But possibly all of the Kasich and Cruz voters would have preferred Rubio to Trump.

Voting rules like instant runoffs or the single transferable vote could account for that. But even that's not enough, because voters can't bargain with one another.

Historically, the selection of the vice president was part of a bargain to appeal to different constituencies. Say you see the appeal of John Kasich, but you think he's not conservative enough. Nominate a Kasich-Cruz ticket. Or write important principles into the platform. And if a Kasich-Cruz scenario isn't going to happen, you can keep looking until you find a package that works.

Or you can if you can work like a legislature instead of an electorate, which can only speak once, and on a very truncated set of options.

In such a scenario, the delegates would be allowed to do the business of the party, which, as I noted earlier this week, has been overshadowed by the pageantry.

We don't want to believe that voters can't do it all, but some things are better done by representatives. That's why we have representative democracy.

In most democracies, this is not seen as a problem. Most other advanced democracies have conventions. Political scientists Jean-Benoit Pilet and William P. Cross have edited an excellent book on the selection of leaders in 13 major parliamentary democracies. In it, they classify the selection mechanism used in 76 parties. Across the period and cases they study, only two parties allowed ordinary voters to make the decision.

Data and classifications from Pilet and Cross (2014),The Selection of Political Party Leaders in Contemporary Parliamentary Democracies. Countries included are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Data and classifications from Pilet and Cross (2014),The Selection of Political Party Leaders in Contemporary Parliamentary Democracies. Countries included are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Most leaders are chosen at conventions. (Some are chosen by a vote of party members, but party membership tends to be much more involved in these countries than simply declaring when you register to vote.) There has been some movement toward more openness, but nothing like the chaos of American elections.

This is hard to square with the idea that the delegates doing the work is demonstrably undemocratic. We have heard complaints that closed primaries somehow disenfranchise voters, but this is only because we've convinced ourselves that "people voting" is the same thing as democracy. Well-functioning parties are important too.

Part II: Proportional representation and a shorter calendar.

Part III: Select better delegates.

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