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The Cleaner “Smoke-Filled Room”

Dear Readers: We’re pleased to welcome Gerald Pomper as a Crystal Ball contributor this week. Pomper is a widely-published and respected political scientist. In this piece, he explores how the Democratic Party’s consolidation around Joe Biden is somewhat reminiscent of the old, insider-dominated method of selecting presidential nominees. Pomper is encouraged by this development, although supporters of presidential candidates in both parties who are less connected to party power centers — such as Bernie Sanders — may not be.

The Editors


— In the last 50 years, American political party leaders lost their historical control of the nominations of presidential candidates.

— The reduced power held by these expert politicians contributed to Donald Trump’s nomination in 2016, and Democrats in 2020 came close to making a similar choice.

— Involvement by party leaders in a modern “smoke-filled room” gives the Democrats a more viable candidate, Joe Biden, and an increased chance of victory.

The cleaner “smoke-filled room”

Here’s a thought: Let’s pause in this election season and look back to the past. Sometimes older is better: For example, an historic political institution, the “smoke-filled room,” is possibly a means to revive American politics.

We might do well to imitate the times when parties chose their presidential candidates in national conventions where state factions and bosses fought loudly and negotiated deals softly. Their messy struggles eventually gave the nation candidates such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Lincoln won a third ballot nomination in 1860 after piously declaring, “I authorize no bargains” — but then included the dealmakers as the “team of rivals” in his presidential cabinet. Roosevelt won on the fourth ballot in 1932, after his campaign manager made a vice presidential deal at a hot dog stand. Not bad choices.

The conventions declined after 1968, when asserted “reforms” shifted power to state primaries. Candidates came to win nomination not through bargaining, but on the basis of their personalities, financial resources, interest group endorsements, and media attention. Party leaders could influence the process, but convention delegates became more like robotic cheerleaders for those who successfully ran the gamut of exhausting state contests than decisionmakers in a conclave of informed political practitioners.

The resulting problems were evident in the flawed nominations of 2016 and 2020. Four years ago, Republicans had 17 self-starters, competing under clumsy rules that greatly advantaged plurality winners, even weak ones. Party leaders had no effective role, and could do little to help their favorites, most notably Jeb Bush, or to deter the clashing ambitions of candidates with limited bases. Playing against these pale competitors, showman Donald Trump maneuvered through the motley and contentious crowd. Eventually he won only a minority of the popular vote in both the nominating primaries and the general election, yet captured the presidency.

This year, the Democrats faced a similar problem, one that almost doomed their electoral cause, largely because of changes in their rules meant to appease Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Superdelegates — prominent party officials and officeholders — have been sidelined, barred from voting at the party convention until the second ballot, potentially depriving the delegates of critical advice from their most seasoned leaders. The skewed sequence of state nominating contests continued, maintaining the leading position of Iowa and New Hampshire, states where Sanders had a disproportionate appeal to largely white electorates.

The party also kept its past requirements for allocating delegates by proportional representation among the candidates. This can enable many candidates to remain in contention for long periods, potentially delaying the selection of the eventual nominee and limiting her or his time to unify the party and raise the large funds necessary to match Trump’s rich endowment from wealthy contributors.

Presidential ambitions were further encouraged by the ease of participation in a series of nationally televised party debates. For the first round, Democratic aspirants needed only to gain 1% — a statistical blip — in a few national or state polls or raise funds from 65,000 contributors, .0005% of the voting electorate. A horde of 29 wannabes emerged; 23 jumped the absurdly low hurdles to enter the debates, including several with scant or no actual elected experience.

In these conditions, chaos loomed, with resolution seemingly awaiting only a fractured convention bereft of experienced leadership. Moreover, it seemed likely that the ultimate survivor, Sanders, would also lose the general election to Trump, despite the incumbent president’s general unpopularity. Yet Sanders, firmly committed to a radical program of “democratic socialism,” and “revolution” had won fervent loyalty and large funds, particularly among leisured left-wing, and often young, ideologues. They explicitly assessed candidates by their policy programs, rather than by their likelihood of electoral victory against Trump, the test emphasized by most of the other, but divided, Democratic candidates and voters.

The Democrats’ problem came down to simple arithmetic as much as complex politics. Sanders was the favorite of a cohesive minority, at most a third of the Democratic electorate, and led in national polls only for a couple of weeks in February. He actually was doing poorly compared to his previous run in 2016 and failed to fulfill his vaunted mobilization of new young voters.

But the other candidates, more moderate in their policy appeals, were also more moderate in the enthusiasm they engendered. In the early part of the race, Sanders had an arithmetic advantage. The party allocated states’ pledged delegates only to candidates who won at least 15% of their votes. That worked well for Sanders, even with his limited base. On the other hand, his opponents were fragmenting their combined forces. The possibility loomed, for example, that five non-Sanders candidates would each get 14% of the vote, a combined 70%, yet none of them would win delegates, allowing Sanders to sweep the field. Or, ironically, to win the nomination in the same manner as the dreaded Trump did four years earlier.

Politics also clashed with mathematics at the refined level of game theory. In the classic “Prisoners Dilemma” game, mock criminals suffer severe penalties (e.g. 20 years in a hypothetical jail!) when they emphasize their individual interests and neglect the common interests shared with fellow criminals. This was the error of Republicans in 2016. Instead of uniting for their common goal, stopping Trump, they looked only to their own ambitions, and that division ensured his success.

Democrats might have made that mistake in 2020. Unless the more moderate candidates combined forces, Sanders’ “progressive” minority could beat them all. And that combination required the modern equivalent of the traditional smoke-filled room — the public electronic stages of television, sanitized by air conditioning, purified by tobacco bans, cleaner yet not sterile.

To stop Sanders, the other candidates had to unite behind a single alternative, silence the cadences of “Hail to the Chief” long echoing in their dreams, and see another man or woman — one they probably thought their inferior — move toward the White House. In our contemporary open politics, that alliance could not be created by hidden bosses nor gained through their promised deals. It required open admission of defeat and submission by self-confident, high-achieving, strong, yet disappointed competitors.

The alliance between these alternative entrants had an obvious favorite: former Vice President Joe Biden. As the heir to the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, he was well-known, experienced, and immediately led in polls and the relatively few early endorsements from the time he entered the race in April 2019. But as the manifest front-runner, he was also the principal target for the crowd of contestants, drawing attacks for his syntax and demeanor in the debates, age, fundraising prowess, votes as U.S. senator from Delaware, and actions as vice president. As actual state voting began, he faltered in the first three contests; some pundits began to write his political obituary.

The tide quickly turned in the fourth contest, South Carolina. Guided by the state’s dominant party leader, James Clyburn, Biden won an overwhelming victory built on the votes of the African-American majority among party loyalists. Three days later, Biden won 10 of 14 state contests on “Super Tuesday,” with nationwide victories from every region in states as diverse as Maine, Minnesota, Virginia, and Texas.

In the few days between South Carolina and Super Tuesday, candidates gathered in the electronic smoke-filled room, announcing on television that they were suspending their campaigns, usually following with an endorsement of Biden. After the primary polls closed in South Carolina, Tom Steyer, who had spent $200 million of his own money to win no delegates, began the retreat parade. Mayor Pete Buttigieg withdrew on Sunday night, explicitly saying that party unity was the basic reason for his withdrawal. The day before Super Tuesday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar not only withdrew but asked voters in her state, Minnesota, to vote against her and for Biden — which bought the vice president another state. Beto O’Rourke, once a candidate, came out of his brief retirement to endorse Biden, aiding his surprise victory in Texas. After Super Tuesday, Mike Bloomberg, who had spent nearly a billion dollars to win a little more than 1% of the pledged delegates, withdrew and endorsed Biden. The next day, Sen. Elizabeth Warren withdrew, forgoing support for Sanders, her ideological ally. Within two weeks, Biden’s only remaining rival was Sanders, who fell further behind each week, losing five of six contests one week and all three contests the next — but still clinging to the campaign microphone. Further personal endorsements of Biden followed, from previous candidates and sitting Democratic governors.

There are no known negotiations between these candidates and Biden, but there were reported conversations. Biden did make some policy outreach to Warren and even Sanders. In the end, the party had set the stage for the formal July nomination of a strong and respected candidate with appeal across the electorate who has shown a broad ability to rebuild the Democratic voting coalition, including both established partisans such as nonwhites, recent defectors in the white working class, and new supporters among women, suburbanites, and dissident Republicans. Demonstrating that appeal, Biden led Trump in national polls and in many likely battleground states. Party turnout had also increased considerably in many of these areas in the 2018 congressional elections and the 2020 primaries, raising Democratic hopes for a Biden presidential victory.

To be sure, no one can now know the outcome of the presidential election in a nation devastated by the coronavirus. But the party had done what it should do: select a candidate who both represented its overall values and had a good chance to win the election.

Nonetheless, parties should not have to engage in the heroic efforts that Democrats made this year and Republicans eschewed in 2016. In the real world of politics, choices are ambiguous and ambivalent. Those decisions are not likely to meet the demands of purists of the left or right. But in a structure akin to the smoke-filled room, informed advice can improve the electorate’s choices. Democracy is a complex system that, at its best, is a dialogue between leaders and the mass public, a conversation in which leaders, drawing on their experience and beliefs, offer ideas, values, and abilities to voters, inexpert yet public-spirited, as they choose among competent, peer-tested competitors.

America has moved far, too far, from that ideal in recent years. Instead of reasoned dialogue and policy improvement, there has been a cacophony of negative partisanship, polarization, and deadlock, amid the deafening noise of extremist online activists and antagonistic echo chambers. Perhaps the experience of our recent elections and even the trauma of the coronavirus now demonstrate the need for dialogue, expertise, and reason. Let’s hope these lessons have not come too late to save our nation.

Gerald Pomper is retired as Board of Governors Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at Rutgers University and its Eagleton Institute of Politics. He is the author or editor of 21 books on American politics; the most recent is The New York Times on Critical U.S. Elections.