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Susan Estrich: Who’s Really in Charge of Picking the Presidential Nominee?

Grassroots activists have taken hold recently, but the establishment may be coming back

The fight between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum doesn’t just raise questions about each man’s strengths and weaknesses. It also raises, as fundamentally as any battle in recent decades, the question of who, ultimately, is in charge of picking the nominee.

Is it the party elite — the elected officials, the strategists and the smart money, the people who used to huddle in smoke-filled rooms, at least in our collective imagination?

Or is it the grassroots activists — the small minority of Americans who go to caucuses and stay, who not only vote in primaries and run for delegate but spend countless hours knocking on doors and making phone calls?

Romney is the smart money candidate, the strategists’ choice, the guy most Republicans would like to run in 2012. Even with the desertion of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Romney has the endorsements, the party leaders, the money, the organization and the big super PAC.

Santorum is the leader of the ragtag crowd of true believers — activists, Tea Party types, the 99 percent crew that doesn’t donate big bucks but is willing to stay until the last vote is counted in a caucus.

The nomination of George McGovern in 1972 posed this question in spades for Democrats. Actually, it was probably Hubert Humphrey’s nomination — with activists at war with the police outside the halls of the Democratic Convention — that began the reform movement in earnest. In its earliest stage (when, ironically, McGovern chaired the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection), the goal was to bring the activists back into the hall, to democratize the process, to ensure that insurgent candidates had a chance to take on establishment candidates.

After McGovern was nominated, the battles accelerated. The newly empowered reformers wanted to expand reform to include getting rid of “bloc voting” (winner take all) in favor of systems of proportionate representation, ensuring representation of women and non-whites at the convention and pushing for every state to have a democratic selection process. Labor and elected officials started boycotting the convention and complaining that the reformers (aka radicals, women, gays, blacks, Hispanics, Asian Pacific Americans, Democrats Abroad, all of whom were organized into caucuses) were nominating candidates who couldn’t win, even if the candidate they nominated in 1976, Jimmy Carter, did win.

After the election in 1980, the mood concerning reform commissions changed. In 1982, the Democrats created a new class of uncommitted delegates (not equally divided between men and women) selected because they were “Party Leaders and Elected Officials” (read: politicians, labor, state party chairs and national committee members), what I, in one of my great naming moments (on par with “nuts and sluts”), first called “superdelegates.”

The Democratic Leadership Council (aka the “white boys caucus”) was founded with the stated goal of giving more conservative Southern states a bigger say in the process by all holding their primaries on Super Tuesday (which, in the world of unintended consequences, helped Jesse Jackson more than anyone else). But the effort was on to select electable candidates.

The Republicans never went as far down the reform road as the Democrats (for instance, they kept winner take all). But by the 1992 convention, it was clear that the activists had figured out how to take control of even the more antiquated methods of delegate selection. They showed up en masse at the county and state committee meetings, ran slates of delegates, and pushed the platform so far rightward that no less a conservative than Ronald Reagan took to the podium to argue for tolerance.

So who’s in charge now?

For the past few weeks, anyway, it’s been the activists. But the establishment may be coming back, pounding home the message that a vote for Santorum is a vote for President Barack Obama. The insiders aren’t just biting their nails. They’re doing everything they can — and that’s a lot — to send the message, beginning in Michigan, that Romney is still the likely nominee, and the more contests he gets pounded in, and the more speeches he gives about liking the trees in Michigan, the weaker he’ll be.

Unlike his face-off with Newt Gingrich in Florida, Santorum (with less obvious baggage than Gingrich) is making Romney look smaller. He can only shrink so much before his chances of beating Obama shrink with him. That may be the reason recent polls show the gap narrowing in Michigan. Supporting Santorum is, I have no doubt, a whole lot more fun than supporting Romney. But if the fun ends in November, it won’t look that way in retrospect.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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