Are American political parties strong or weak right now? Quite honestly, there’s plenty of available evidence for either conclusion. (Julia Azari and I have gone back and forth quite a bit on this topic.) But one solid piece of evidence for weak parties is when party nominations are affected by candidates’ convention speeches.
What’s wrong with a good speech? Nothing, really. But it’s one the of the last criteria a party should consider when evaluating a prospective nominee. If party leaders are making thoughtful decisions about whom they want carrying their banner, they should be considering just what that candidate stands for, which groups and factions within the party the candidate has strong ties with, how likely they’ll be to follow through on their promises once elected, whether they have skeletons in their closet that would make a general election difficult to win, and so forth. Thoughtful party members would already know this information long before they hear a candidate give a speech.
Now, that’s probably a lot to ask from primary voters. But for delegates to a party convention, it’s really not. Those people are chosen (ideally) because of their commitment to the party and their understanding of politics. Party delegates usually go into a convention knowing a good deal about the key candidates, at least for the top offices, and are either already committed to one of them or prepared to negotiate their support with those committed to another candidate. If delegates go into the convention not knowing anything about the candidates but just waiting to see who impresses them, that’s not a sign of party strength.
Case in point: the recent state Republican Assembly in Colorado. The main function of this event is to decide who gets to compete in the gubernatorial primary in June. According to Corey Hutchins’s write-up in the Colorado Independent: “In interviews with roughly 30 delegates, a majority said they came to the convention undecided. Many said their vote would come down to who gave the best barnburner.”
At this convention, Greg Lopez, the mayor of Parker, Colorado (population ~50,000), was one of just two candidates to meet the vote threshold. The other was Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer, with substantial resources and name recognition. Lopez’s success at the Assembly caught observers by surprise.
Quite a few of the delegates were apparently enamored of Lopez’s speech, in which he tied himself to Trump; criticized illegal immigration, abortion, and California; praised the Second Amendment; and claimed he could connect with conservative Latino voters. According to Hutchins, almost none of the Assembly delegates knew anything about Lopez or most of the other candidates running when they showed up that morning. They went in just expecting to hear speeches. Lopez’s worked:
“Goddam helluva speech,” one man told him, gripping his hand. “I did not know who you were until I walked into this room,” said another who came from Carbondale and sported a Rocky Mountain Gun Owners ball cap and pin. “You did great up there,” another told Lopez. “You did fantastic up there. Anyway, God bless.”
What’s wrong with being impressed by a good speech? The problem is that this is the only viability test Lopez has passed. He has raised a mere $23,000 so far, more than half of which he contributed. He was charged with domestic violence back in the 1990s. There’s little to suggest he’d be a good nominee for the party. But he managed to secure a spot on the June primary ballot nonetheless.
This story immediately reminded me of US Senate candidate Darryl Glenn’s surprise dominance of the 2016 Colorado Republican convention, at which he was the only Republican candidate to qualify for the primary ballot via convention votes. Glenn was an El Paso County commissioner with almost no name recognition outside of Colorado Springs. Being an African-American Republican who used his convention speech to criticize Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter gave him a great deal of recognition, blowing away the competition. As Peg Littleton, one of Glenn’s competitors, remarked:
Quite honestly, Darryl gave a great stump speech, and people were motivated and inspired by that. Whether they knew about him or his record or think he can win against Bennet, apparently stump speeches work.
Glenn turned in a rather lackluster performance in the fall election and went on to lose to the incumbent, Democrat Michael Bennet.
Now, this isn’t a problem unique to Colorado Republicans. One might fairly note that Obama’s rise to the 2008 presidential nomination began with his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Few Democratic activists or delegates outside Illinois knew much about him prior to that speech.
But there are important differences there. For one thing, DNC leaders invited him to give a primetime address in 2004 precisely because they thought he’d be a promising candidate; it wasn’t like Obama had just shown up seeking the nomination. For another thing, his speech marked the beginning of a four-year evaluation of Obama’s strengths as a potential presidential candidate. Had he given a strong speech but turned out to have views outside the party’s mainstream or a history of scandalous behavior, Democrats might well have gone with a different nominee in 2008. They had plenty of good options.
What Colorado Republicans, at least, are showing right now is a pretty low information way of picking nominees. It’s part of the reason the GOP is picking so many amateurs to run for office these days. To be sure, such a process can still produce strong nominees that can win general elections, but the variance in quality will be a lot higher through such a process. Party insiders are supposed to do a lot of the deciding for voters, but right now they’re deciding the same way that voters do.