Tag Archives: primaries

Choosing Their Nominee: The Democrats’ Not So “Invisible” Primary

The invisible primary just became a lot more visible.  

On the nights of June 26th and 27th, 20 of the 25 announced candidates for the Democrat presidential nomination took the stage in Miami – 10 candidates each night – in the first head-to-head debates of the 2019-20 election season. The twenty were chosen based on drawing at least 1% support in three polls or by raising money from at least 65,000 unique donors. Three more sets of debates are scheduled for late July, September and October.  These are perhaps the most important campaign events taking place during what political scientists dub the “invisible primary” – the period prior to the start of the actual delegate selection process in next February’s Iowa caucuses.  For party activists, the debates provide an opportunity to gauge candidates’ policy positions and their electoral viability. The goal is to select a candidate who most represents the party’s ideological center-of-gravity while generating enough support to win the general election. Based in part on these judgments, the activists will then use endorsements, financial contributions and other signaling devices to begin culling candidates from the race even before public voting begins.  

The debates are a reminder, however, that the media also plays an important and somewhat independent role in this winnowing process.  And its interest does not fully coincide with that of party activists.  As a for-profit industry, the media focuses much more on attracting a large audience – a prerequisite for generating advertising revenue.  To do so, its coverage tends to emphasize controversy, and to center on candidate personalities and horse race strategy as opposed to substantive policy discussion.

Coverage of the first two Democrat debates highlight the media’s independent role during the invisible primary.  One indication is the relative media focus on the second of the two debates. Due to the luck of the draw, most of the top-tier candidates, including the purported front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, were in the second debate.  This left Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with senators Corey Booker and Amy Klobuchar, as the main attractions during the first debate.  Not surprisingly, the second debate attracted greater media attention and, as a consequence, generated higher ratings, with nearly 18.1 million viewers tuning in – a number that broke the record for the biggest television audience for a Democratic primary debate – compared to about 15 million who watched the first debate.  This meant that although Warren was judged by most commentators to have performed well, she does not appear to have generated much if any momentum from her debate performance.  Nor did others, including Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, both of whom were also viewed as having had a strong performances during the first debate.  Instead, it was the second debate that seems to have had the bigger impact on the race, at least as gauged by media commentary and early polling.

The debate format and the questions asked by moderators, and to whom, also showed the media’s focus on the horse race and its role handicapping the field in ways that favored some candidates over others.  Candidates were only allowed 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups, which meant they might get at most 10 minutes of talking time during a two-hour debate.  This left little time for substantive discussion, and instead placed a premium on candidates’ ability to generate memorable sound bites. Indeed, on some key issues, such as whether they supported providing health care to undocumented immigrants, candidates were simply asked to raise their hand rather than to explain their positions. Not surprisingly, on both nights those candidates who entered the night near the top of the polls ended up getting the most speaking time.  To be sure, the differences were slight, often measured in minutes or less, but with 10 candidates vying to get their message across, even slight differences in speaking time can be significant.  This left second-tier candidates forced to cut into the conversation in order to be heard. As a consequence there were frequent moments of candidates talking over each other. 

Equally important, however, is how the media conducted its debate post-mortem. By focusing on a specific exchanges between candidates, or framing the debate through a specific lens, media coverage can influence perceptions regarding winners and losers in ways that do not necessarily coincide with party interests, as Republican activists learned to their dismay in 2016 when media coverage of Donald Trump’s debate performances helped solidify his lead in the polls.  Although the Democrat field lacks a candidate with Trump’s capacity to stir an audience, the post-debate coverage does appear to have benefited some candidates while hurting others, at least marginally.  Harris, in particular, seems to have gained the most due largely to the media replaying her exchange with Biden regarding his opposition during the 1970’s to federally-mandated forced busing to integrate public schools.  Harris sought to personalize the issue, and to paint Biden as out-of-touch on civil rights, by noting that she was bused as part of the second class to integrate her public school. Biden seemed to respond defensively, arguing that he supported busing as a local choice, but not as a federal mandate. Most media accounts of the second debate highlighted that exchange as the lead story – a choice that worked in Harris’ favor, even though in the weeks after the debate it became clear that Harris’ stance on busing was, in fact, quite similar to Biden’s. By then, however, the media had already cast the debate as a victory for Harris, and she received an 8% boost in the aggregate polls, pushing her to 15% support and in a virtual tie with Sanders and Warren for second place behind Biden. Most of Harris’ surge, moreover, appears to have come at Biden’s expense; his post-debate aggregate polling numbers dropped six points down to 26%.

It bears repeating that this was one set of debates, and that it is still early in the nominating race.  The upcoming debates will undoubtedly generate more media-defined moments that may further reshuffle the top half of the field.  However, most of the current front-runners have the resources to make it to Iowa, no matter what happens in the debates.  For second tier candidates, on the other hand, the prospects of surviving the invisible primary are far less certain.  As of today 14 candidates appear to have cleared the threshold for the July debates, which leaves 11 candidates jockeying for the final six debate slots.  Moreover, for the September and October debates, the bar to get on the debate stage increases to 2 percent in four qualifying polls and 130,000 unique donors, which may further winnow the field. Whether these second-tier candidates participate in debates or not, history teaches that the media’s focus on the horserace and its desire for a competitive nominating contest will lead them to signal that these candidates are not electorally viable.  That negative coverage will likely contribute to their dropping out of the race even before voting begins, as campaign resources begin to dry up.

Potential debate flash points going forward include candidates’ positions on health care, immigration, trade policy and foreign policy.  In handicapping the field, two cleavages stand out.  One is between candidates such as Biden, Klobuchar and Gillibrand who emphasize their relative pragmatism and ability to defeat Trump versus the more progressive firebrands like Warren, Sanders and Harris who believe the Democrat voters have moved left and will embrace a more left-leaning candidate. A second divide is generational, pitting the older candidates including Biden, Warren and Sanders against a younger cohort who are seeking support from millennial voters. It remains to be seen which side of these divides will prove more popular, with whom – and how the media will judge the results.

Bolivia: A Testing Year for Bolivia’s Democracy

The tide that swept leftist governments to power in Latin America over a decade ago has dramatically receded in recent years. The resulting political struggles between left and right have seen a rise in undemocratic tendencies, with dubious methods utilised both by presidents to retain power, as well as by opponents seeking to depose incumbents. 

Bolivia under Evo Morales has proved no exception, as previously outlined in this blog. In this context, 2019 increasingly looks like being a pivotal year for Bolivia’s democracy. Presidential elections are scheduled to take place on October 20th, where visions of the past and present will vie to control the country’s future. 

In particular, current President Evo Morales will be seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, having managed to overturnthe result of a 2016 plebiscite in which a majority voted against the abolition of term limits. 

Since the shock of that result, Morales and his government have done what they tend to do when faced with setbacks: retrench and find a way around the problem by whatever means necessary. In this case a friendly Supreme Court acceded to the government’s petition to override the plebiscite, thus abolishing term limits. In turn the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) ratified that rulingand registered the candidacy of Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia-Linera.

The government’s manoeuvrings prompted a significant backlash. In the immediate aftermath of the TSE decision, a series of protests eruptedinvolving work stoppages, blockades, marches and vigils. Opponents have come together under the heading of ‘Bolivia Dijo No!’(Bolivia Said No!). The coalition is an uneasy one, however, as it contains a mixture of right-wing opponents from wealthy sectors and disillusioned former Morales supporters. The former group, in particular, has shown violent tendencies, evidenced by the burningof the TSE building in Santa Cruz. Such behaviour is unlikely to win over wavering middle-class voters, however.

Morales has sought to prey on these doubts by offering stability, further poverty reduction, and continued economic growth, which has averaged five per cent during his 13 years in power. Furthermore, the recent launch of a system of universal healthcareis a departure from the more targeted and clientelistic social protection measurestypically employed by the government.

Nevertheless, seasoned observers have noted that Morales has a habit of launching big initiatives in the period before presidential elections. Nor was the healthcare plan well-received by doctors, who launched industrial actionand criticised the lack of funding for beds, supplies and staff.

Other recent initiatives, however, appear to be more overt attempts to utilise state power to influence the outcome of the election. One example was the holding of mandatory primary electionsin January. While on its face a move to enhance democratic processes, critics viewed the primaries as an attempt by Morales to expand his electoral base following the humiliation of the 2016 plebiscite.

Furthermore, the measure was imposed in late 2018with little warning, and provided opposition parties with a very short period within which to register candidates. In particular, the timeframe meant that the opposition was unable to coalesce around a single candidate. The conduct of the processwas also hampered by low turnout – partly explained by many parties calling for a boycott – and allegations of significant irregularities. The result was that the opposition emerged divided, with nine candidates set to contest the election.

Nonetheless, the main rival that has emerged is a name from Bolivia’s past: former president Carlos Mesa. A mild-mannered journalist and historian, Mesa is widely respected. Nevertheless, his association with the unpopular government of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (‘Goni’) – who Mesa served as Vice-President before taking over when Goni was ousted – continues to dog his candidacy. Mesa’s refusal to formalise an alliance with any party is evidence that he is aware of this weakness.

In response to the threat of Mesa, Morales has used more direct tactics to damage his rival. These have included accusing Mesa of causing economic damageto the state due to his nationalisation of a Chilean company when president – ironic given that Morales’ signature promise when first elected was the purported nationalisation of the country’s gas reserves – and levelling charges of accepting bribesfrom a Brazilian construction company. 

The overall image forged by Morales’ actions over the past three years – commencing with the overturning of the result of the 2016 plebiscite, and running through the primaries to the use of the state apparatus to target a political rival – is of a government that increasingly adheres to the typology of “competitive authoritarianism” developed by Levitsky and Way[i]

The reason underlying these actions is that Morales’s grip on power has loosened significantly in recent years due to the inherent contradictions of his governing model. Morales relies heavily on rents from gas, mining and agribusiness for redistribution and public spending. The end of the commodities boom has seen the government go to ever-greater lengths to boost income, even opening up protected areasfor oil and gas exploration. 

The result has been a series of conflicts between the self-styled ‘government of the social movements’ and social movements themselves[ii]. The disconnect between this model and Morales’ environmentalist discourse can no longer be overlooked.

Furthermore, the kind of large-scale infrastructure projects undertaken by the government have traditionally been sources of patronage and bribery in Bolivia. It is far from surprising then that Morales’ government has been dogged by allegations of corruption, nepotism and vanity[iii].

Nevertheless, Morales remains a popular and indeed historic figure in Bolivia whose importance as a symbol continues to resonate with many. Recent opinion pollsappear to show that Morales’s lead over Mesa is growing, albeit slowly.

The biggest problem facing Morales looks likely to be the electoral system, and in particular the run-off vote. In each of his three previous victories, Morales was elected with over 50 per cent of the vote, thereby avoiding a second round of voting. That outcome appears unlikely on this occasion.

Instead Morales’ core vote appears to be closer to 30 per cent. Even allowing for the fact that polls routinely under-estimate support for Morales, if the president fails to triumph over Mesa by more than ten per cent it would trigger a run-off. A second round would place the president in a very different situation, facing a single candidate around whom a diffuse and divided opposition could coalesce. Indeed, opinion pollsindicate that Mesa would win a run-off vote against Morales.

Were this to occur, it would represent a significant test for Bolivia’s institutions and its current president’s commitment to democracy.


[i]Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

[ii]The ongoing socio-environmental conflict in the protected area of Tariquiaover hydrocarbon concessions granted without any prior consultation with indigenous communities is just the most recent of such clashes.

[iii]The construction of a 29-storey presidential palace – named The Great House of the People – for a cost of $34 million is the most high-profile example of this tendency.

France – Bye bye Mr Sarkozy, hello Mr Nobody

The ‘open primaries of the Right and the Centre’, fought over two Sundays in November 2016, have challenged two unwritten ‘rules’ of the French Fifth Republic. First, the Gaullist one of the direct relationship between the providential leader and the people unmediated by party. In this tradition, the leader emerges naturally to represent the force of history; the party is a presidential rally to organize support for the exceptional leader. If we can recognize the Gaullist genealogy of this style in the history of the French right, for a long-time French Presidents have no longer corresponded to this ideal.  The vibrant primary elections revealed a movement that is anything but subordinate: whether this is interpreted in terms of a confrontation of powerful Barons or a successful exercise in direct democracy. The hollowing of the Gaullist myth is closely associated with a second unwritten rule: that control of a political party produces a natural advantage for a candidate seeking election to the presidency. Mitterrand in 1981, Chirac in 1995, Sarkozy in 2007 all represented versions of this truism. The introduction of the primary elections, first for the PS in 2006 and 2011, and now for the Right and the Centre (in fact, LR), have laid bare the shifting foundations of presidential power. The success of the PS primaries in 2011 occurred because the voting constituency was broadened well beyond the traditional party members and activists; the party itself was fairly marginal to the procedure and reconfigured on the basis of the results in the primary election. Capturing control of the party is no longer an adequate gauge of the ability to stand as the party’s candidate; Martine Aubry controlled the party from 2008, but failed to win the primary and secure the PS nomination in 2011.  Sarkozy’s return to take control of UMP/LR in 2014 was accompanied by a commitment to introduce primaries, forced upon him by Alain Juppé and François Fillon.

The ‘open primaries of the right and the centre’ were fought over two rounds on 20th and 27th November.  The fortunes of the candidates oscillated widely once the campaign began in earnest in late summer, but most had assumed that the run-off would pit former President Nicolas Sarkozy against former Premier Alain Juppé. In the event, Francois Fillon, long considered as the outsider, even as Mister Nobody (in the charming opinion of former President Sarkozy), emerged in powerful first position (44.1%), making the opinion pollsters the first losers of this primary election. The first round results were widely interpreted as a surprise. ‘Speedy Sarko’ was the main victim. In a previous blog, I wondered whether Sarkozy was on the road to nowhere, with an identity focused campaign aimed at siphoning potential FN voters but ignoring core socio-economic concerns.  The maneuver fell flat:  Sarkozy managed to poll just 20.7%, producing an abrupt and immediate end to his political career and unlikely resurrection. The second unanticipated result of the first round lay in the counter-performance of Alain Juppé (28.6%), who had appeared withdrawn (even complacent) throughout the campaign and who clearly expected to be present, in a commanding position, on the second round against a damaged Sarkozy. In the event, François Fillon emerged strongly with over 44.1% on the first round, though he had been trailing with barely 10% in fourth place a few weeks earlier. For the record: the other candidates were each squeezed by the triumvirate in head: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet  (2.6%) narrowly outperformed Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to win the battle of the forty-somethings (les quadras). The wooden spoon was reserved for the unfortunate Jean-Francois Copé (0.3%), the former UMP General Secretary (elected against Fillon for that position in controversial circumstances in 2012), who trailed the Christian Democrat party candidate Jean-Francois Poisson (1.5%).  Fillon’s second round triumph – with 66.5% of votes counted at the time of writing –  was built, amongst other factors,  upon a high rate of transfer of first round Sarkozy voters.

Who were the winners and losers of the primary and what are the likely consequences?  François Fillon was the obvious main winner, elected on 27th November as the LR candidate with two-thirds of the 4,300-000-4,500,000 voters who participated in the primaries.  On the first round, Fillon came ahead in 11 out of 13 regions (all save New Aquitaine [Juppé] and Corsica [Sarkozy]), 87 départements in metropolitan France, against 7 for Alain Juppé (essentially in the New Aquitaine region) and 2 for Nicolas Sarkozy (Corsica, Overseas). The results delivered a favourite son effect for Fillon, who registered impressive scores in Pays de la Loire region [59.7%], where he arrived in first position in each department, achieving a peak of 78.5% in the Sarthe (that he had represented as a deputy).[1] Rather than its spatial concentration, however, the core lesson to be drawn from Fillon’s first round vote lies in its broad national spread. Fillon led in regions such as Brittany that might have been expected to lean to the centrist Juppé, as well as in the former Sarkozy strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.  Alain Juppe  was runner up in most regions, except in the geographically specific south-west (6 of the 12 départements of the New Aquitaine region, the zone of influence of Bordeaux), along with a stronger performance in Paris region, where the Ile-de-France regional leader Valérie Pecresse had rallied to him.  Sarkozy could draw cold comfort: the former President was beaten into third position almost everywhere, including in the historic stronghold of Hauts-de-Seine. The pole position of the first round was transformed into a triumph on the second, with Fillon attracting the support of three million electors and arriving in first position almost everywhere (except the Gironde, Corrèze and Guyane départements).

How Fillon won relatively clear. Why Fillon won is a rather more complex question, involving three distinct levels of analysis: the personal, the programmatic/ideological and the conjectural.  First, the personal equation. Fillon was widely lauded for a well prepared campaign, a detailed and serious policy programme and a professional performance during the three TV debates between the 7 candidates.  In the three presidential debates, Fillon appeared at least as ‘presidential’ as any other candidate.  By surviving as Sarkozy’s premier for 5 years (2007-2012), Fillon had demonstrated personal endurance. Though Sarkozy’s treatment of his premier (or ‘collaborator’, as described in  2007) produced lasting tensions, the fact remained that Fillon and Sarkozy had shared control of the State for five years and the ex-President rallied without hesitation.  At the level of programme and ideology, Fillon claimed to have a programme that would create a ‘rupture’ with existing social and economic models (a rather similar claim had been made ten years earlier by Sarkozy).  Fillon presented his programme as radical, most explicitly during the second round debate against Juppé.  The centre of gravity of the Fillon programme lay in his attention to the socio-economic and state reform axis. The successful candidate advocates strongly the need to reduce the power of the State in the economy, to bring down company taxation, to end the 35 hour week, to weaken social protection, to support business and enterprise, to engage in a radical reform of the Labour market (including a thoroughgoing revision of the Labour code) and to shed 500,000 jobs in the public sector.  In fairness, the leading candidates were arguing over shades of blue. There was a relative cohesion between the economic policy stances of the main candidates, each promising a version of the most economically liberal programme since the Chirac’s RPR-UDF government (1986-88). The debate between the candidates centered on the extent and rhythm of the shrinkage of the public sector (500,000 jobs, in the case of Fillon, 250,000 for Juppé) and how far and fast to reduce public expenditure. Both leading candidates agreed on the need to increase the retirement age to 65.

This relative cohesion in relation to economic policy was disrupted by clearly distinctive positions on foreign policy and controversy over the role of Putin’s Russia that Fillon seeks to bring back into the orbit of European diplomacy.  A secondary line of cleavage concerned multiculturalism and cultural liberalism.  While Juppé positioned himself as a candidate open to the diverse origins of contemporary and advocated a respect for minorities, Fillon  sent out strong identity markers to provincial Catholic conservative electorate (notably on family issues and adoption), though he refused to be drawn on abortion or  gay marriage. Fillon’s  programme claims to be tough on Islamic terrorism. It rejects aspects of multi-culturalism and adopts an assimilationist ideology not far from that of Sarkozy. The convergences between Sarkozy and Fillon (strengthened by the rallying of the former to the latter) were demonstrated by the controversy over Fillon’s proposals to rewrite history programmes in Schools to encourage a ‘national narrative’.  If Fillon did little to hide his background as a provincial Catholic conservative, the economic and state reform dimension are clearly placed in the forefront. In the French context, this cocktail of economic liberalism and social conservatism raises immediate comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, a comparison willingly embraced by Fillon.

Finally, the conjectural dimension needs to be taken into account. Rather paradoxically, Fillon benefited from being off focus for the main media battles between Juppé and Sarkozy, at least insofar as he was subject to less penetrating media analysis. Fillon occupied the central position in a political landscape marked by a shift to the political right (demonstrated in numerous surveys and notably the CEVIPOF-IPSOS-SOPRA-STORIA-Le Monde 2017 election survey). In the light of recent debates over populism and anti-politics in the wake of BREXIT and Trump, Fillon might be read as an anti-populist candidate.  The ‘populist’ candidate who celebrated Trump’s election was Sarkozy, not Fillon, the provincial, Catholic, conservative promising economic pain in the interests of national revival.  Surveys demonstrated that the kind of national identity politics Sarkozy was proposing were important to some electors, but less important than social and economic issues to electors as a whole. If Juppé scored strongly on the latter, and Sarkozy on the former, Fillon was seen by supporters as being the only candidate able to bridge the identity and economic concerns of the electorate.

Set against the standard of François Fillon, the other leading candidates faltered. Juppé suffered from his open advocacy of the alliance of the Right and the Centre. Sarkozy’s attacks against Juppé on the basis that he would ally with the centrist François Bayrou hit the mark for a fraction of the LR electorate. Juppé’s espousal of l’identité heureuse and pleas in favour of multi-cultural tolerance were notable virtues… but went against the spirit of the times in the ranks of the Conservative electorate.   Was Juppé damaged by the ‘Socialists’ that openly declared they would vote for him? Quite possibly.

For his part, Sarkozy encountered determined resistance, including from the approximately 10-15% of electors who declared themselves to be on the left. Sarkozy stands as one of the most influential politicians of his time, a reformer who energized the French presidency, but whose reforms have not really stood the test of time , with some exceptions. Will Sarkozy be remembered as the tax-cutting President who raised the fiscal burden over the course of his presidency? As the economic liberal who turned to state intervention? As the friend of diversity who ended up excluding those who challenged the quasi-colonialist belief of ‘our ancestors the Gaullists’? As the campaign gathered pace, Sarkozy appeared as a ‘has been’, as did Juppé, the former premier whose welfare reforms had brought the country to a standstill in 1995.

Smaller games were also being played. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet  (2.6%) came ahead of Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to represent the quadras, a  minor but important win. NKM’s performance was probably enough to ensure a bright future, even though she backed Juppé on the run-off. On the other hand, the rallying of Valerie Pécresse, President of the Ile-de-France region and former Fillon supporter, to Juppé days before the first round remains an enigma. There is a more general point: though no-one can predict the victor, the consequences of choices are long lasting. Witness the rallying of Sarkozy’s lieutenants to Fillon as soon as the first round results were known.  The longer-term consequences of the primary elections on restructuring the structure of political opportunities are considerable: the 2011 PS primary demonstrated that presence in the primary ensured a political future. It is not sure, though, that the 0.3% obtained by Copé will be of much use (apart from the therapeutic benefit of having been free to fight the primary and witness the downfall of Sarkozy).

Les Républicains as an organisation emerged as another winner. There were over 4,200,000 voters on the first round (some 9% of the total electoral body), a figure that increased somewhat on the second round. Nobody contested the legitimacy of the process, unlike the  Fillon- Copé spat for the leadership for the UMP four years earlier.  The High Authority for the organization of the primary managed the process in a neutral way and rose to the logistical challenge (apart from running out of ballot papers and envelopes, in Paris notably). The first ever primary election for the mainstream right appeared to give an electoral boost to the victorious candidate, in advance of an anticipated victory in May 2017. Finally, the primary produced a turnover of almost 17,000,000 euros (on the basis of 8,500,000 electors paying 2 euros each) half of which would be drawn upon the Fillon in the presidential election campaign itself.

The immediate polls carried out in the aftermath of Fillon’s election pointed to a comfortable second round victory for the LR candidate against Marine Le Pen. But being installed as favourite this far in advance is a mixed blessing – as Alain Juppé discovered to his cost in the ‘primary of the Right and  the Centre’.

Notes

[1] Le Monde ‘Primaire de la Droite: Résultats du premier tour’, 22 November 2016.