Sen. Terry Sanford of North Carolina, despondent because his Democrats have lost five of the last six presidential elections, has written Senate colleagues suggesting a conference next year of Democratic representatives and Democratic governors. The conference would cast a straw vote on the presidential hopefuls. He says this would influence the national convention's decision on a presidential nominee. It might, but we doubt it. It is likely that in 1992, as in every presidential year since 1960, this decision will effectively be made by rank-and-file voters before the delegates convene.
The presidential nominating process has gone from being party-based to candidate-based in the past generation. Artificial arrangements that give party leaders a major role in picking nominees don't work. The Democrats have already tried this in recent conventions by creating "super-delegates" -- office holders chosen outside the state primary and state convention framework who are free to vote for the presidential candidate of their choice.
Senator Sanford says, "the main reason we've been the party out of power so long is we haven't had a good nominating process." Yes, but since delegate selection procedure is controlled by state law, the Republicans' process is roughly similar to the Democrats. You don't hear them complaining.
Still, the senator has a point. When party influence wanes, special-interest influence grows. Since there are more diverse, competitive and less disciplined special interests under the Democratic tent, it is more difficult for Democrats to choose a presidential nominee with broad appeal.
Democrats are seen by many voters, including crucial numbers of independents, as a squabbling confederacy of special interests. Polls suggest they are no longer considered the party better able to handle the economy or, especially, national defense. If they can change those perceptions, the nominating process won't matter. If those perceptions remain, Democrats can only hope for bad news on the inflation and jobs fronts, or in the Persian Gulf, by 1992. That is an uncomfortable position -- an untenable one for a political party.