The 15% rule at party conventions

The former chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, John Walsh, and Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, had an interesting twitter debate on the requirement that candidates win 15% of the delegates at a party convention to appear on the primary ballot.

Lehigh has called for the end of the rule, claiming that  “there’s no compelling reason to let a vote by convention delegates keep a candidate off the primary ballot.”

Walsh countered that the caucuses that elect delegates are open to all and that the organizing principle behind the 15% threshold forces good and active grass-roots organizing that benefits candidates and parties.

My view is the 15% threshold represents an appropriate balance between strong party organizations and direct democracy in primaries.  If we were to remove that 15% requirement, even if parties could still make endorsements at their conventions, we’d weaken local grassroots organizations and strengthen non party actors such as the very political commentators who advocate for the demise of the 15% rule.

Strong parties are important elements of a healthy democracy: active town committees are strong forces for community, socialization, and civics.  They school citizens in the vagaries of our democratic life, encourage civic conversations, and bind leaders, and would-be leaders, to party regulars. I’ve advocated for a number of years for both state parties to study the activities of the local party organizations on this part of Cape Cod.  They provide important case studies for parties as civic organizations.

The process of caucuses leading up to a state nominating convention is one important form of democratic life.

Primary elections certainly draw in more voters but they are hardly sacrosanct. Participation in local caucuses that lead to a nominating convention is, arguably, a better test of one’s commitment to local politics and civic life.  And the local organizations that work the caucuses are much better buttresses of community that the solitary act of voting in a party primary.

And the current 15% threshold is minimal and subject to important check and balances in the fall primary.  Take a look at 1990.

The Republican Party that year gave its endorsement to state representative Steve Pierce, who bested Bill Weld at the convention by nearly 17 points.  Former congressman Paul Cronin didn’t meet the 15% threshold and was eliminated.  But party regulars, and independents, in the fall primary gave the nod to Weld.

Nineteen ninety was a tumultuous year.  No one received the endorsement at the Democratic convention but eventual nominee John Silber, who just barely cracked the 15% needed,  stormed from the convention to the primary, besting the convention favorite, Frank Bellotti.

Conventions are not determinative unless a candidate cannot crack the 15% threshold.  This raises an important question of governance: should a prospective nominee who cannot organize around the state within their own party to meet a relatively minimal requirement earn a spot on that party’s ballot?  Shouldn’t a party expect a modicum of organization?  Shouldn’t citizens?

The process does favor those who plan in advance, but that doesn’t make it closed and begs another question: isn’t it reasonable to expect that a candidate for statewide office plan in advance?  Why is that unreasonable?  Candidates for governor, for example, are about to take over a large and complex organization that tests their managerial and political skills.  They can hone those by putting together a statewide political organization to win over their follow partisans and win a primary.

Finally, we’ve been here before. Conventions were repealed in the mid-1970s and the result was a deterioration of local grass-roots organizations because prospective candidates had no need to engage.

Who benefited?  Well, the New York Times interviewed a member of the city council in Pittsfield in its  coverage of the 1982 Democratic Convention.

The local town and city committees ”became virtually useless because no candidates were coming to see you,” said Councilman Ken Warren, 25, of Pittsfield, a Berkshire County city in western Massachusetts.

Statewide candidates, he said, were placing newspaper and television advertisements instead of courting the local Democrats. So, in a charter convention two years ago, Mr. Warren and others voted to revive the nominating process. As a result, this year, all eight candidates for lieutenant governor have visited Berkshire County.

Removing this important element of party strength will only benefit those who run advertisements and offer commentary on state politics.  The ripple effect will be to weaken the local organizations that provide much more than delegates to a party conventions.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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