If you think the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign has been confusing, you’re not alone. Even closely attentive citizens can find it hard to make sense of the complicated logic of American nominations.

But “Consequences of Party Reform,” a 1983 book by Nelson W. Polsby, can help. Polsby was a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley from 1967 until his death in 2007. He carefully observed the first decade of the modern nomination system after it was created by the party reforms of 1972, which required most national convention delegates to be chosen by voters via state primaries and caucuses.

Although much about U.S. politics has changed over the past 37 years, Polsby’s central insights still hold true. His perceptive analysis can both help us better understand the current race and also better evaluate the health of the nomination process itself.

How the media matter

The 1972 reforms were designed to “democratize” nominations by opening selection procedures to direct participation by citizens. Polsby argued, however, that they actually transferred power from one set of elites (leaders of party organizations) to another (major media sources). Because voters don’t usually know most candidates well, and because their preferences in primary elections are relatively weak, they are often influenced by how much positive or negative media coverage each candidate receives.

Polsby recognized that “name recognition is of great significance in the competition to overcome the inattentiveness of mass participants.” Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) entered the 2020 race as well-known figures, which gave them a clear edge in a field that contained more than 20 declared Democratic contenders. Most of their rivals struggled to attract the notice of a public easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of candidates.

Because the media operate on the principle that what’s news is what’s new, Polsby argued, “ ’wins’ and ‘losses’ by various candidates are evaluated by news professionals in the light of how well they ‘expected’ to do, or were expected to do by some consensus of observers.” For example, Biden suffered damaging coverage after journalists collectively judged his support in Iowa and New Hampshire to be weaker than anticipated.

But his ensuing decline in opinion polls also lowered expectations for Biden’s performance in the South Carolina primary, so a victory that would have been viewed as unexceptional a month before was instead trumpeted as a dramatic “comeback.” This eruption of friendly publicity was perfectly timed to restore Biden’s national popularity just before what turned out to be a decisive set of contests on Super Tuesday three days later, while opponents who finished far behind in South Carolina couldn’t sustain their candidacies in the face of increasingly dismissive media treatment.

The tone of news coverage influenced the 2020 campaign at other times as well. A strong debate performance in the eyes of media commentators gave Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) a last-minute burst of positive attention heading into New Hampshire, where she outperformed the polls to finish a close third.

Mike Bloomberg wasn’t so lucky. Speculation that he could compete seriously for the nomination despite his late entry and previous Republican affiliation was immediately quieted by his first debate appearance on Feb. 19, universally judged a flop by media critics.

And at what seems in retrospect like a pivotal point in the race, Sanders suffered several days of critical press scrutiny over his comment that the Castro regime had done some good things in Cuba. This came immediately after victories in New Hampshire and Nevada had given Sanders a lead in national polls, slowing his apparent momentum just before the critical South Carolina contest. Under the modern nomination system, candidates’ fortunes can easily be made or unmade by such accidents of timing.

Polsby criticized the reforms for giving party leaders no significant formal role in the nomination process. In his view, this exclusion risked producing nominees who were either weak general election candidates, thus denying Americans a suitable choice of prospective presidents, or who lacked the ability to govern competently once in office.

After nearly four more decades of experience, a more measured view is justifiable. Both parties have usually nominated capable candidates, and post-reform presidencies have hardly lacked major accomplishments. Neither party has suffered the crisis of legitimacy that marred the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where anti-Vietnam War activists protested the party’s nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey — the event that inspired the reforms in the first place.

Yet Polsby was right to warn that a shift of influence from party leaders to media outlets reduces the importance placed on presidential preparedness. News stories about the campaign and journalists’ questions in debates or interviews focus less than they should on the candidates’ readiness for the job they seek, with its accompanying powers and limitations.

In the years since “Consequences of Party Reform” was written, social media’s promotion of celebrity fandom as personal identity has only amplified television’s tendency to portray politics as a melodrama populated by heroic and villainous personalities rather than as a complex interaction of institutions and incentives — which is how many political scientists see it. The public’s deference to traditional political authorities and organizations has continued to decline, convincing the Democratic National Committee to reduce party leaders’ already limited power at national conventions.

But if returning some influence to “insiders” would be rejected as mere elitism — one of American political culture’s few unforgivable sins — then responsibility falls to the media sources, financial donors, and primary voters who now select the nominees. It’s their job to value candidates’ capacity to be both attractive standard-bearers during the campaign and successful presidents after it’s over.

Americans now face a simultaneous economic, geopolitical and public health crisis that requires informed and effective federal action. Today’s events confirm the critical importance of choosing nominees who possess not only appealing rhetoric or policy ambitions but also, in Polsby’s apt words, the ability “to execute the duties and responsibilities of the office of President with some exceptional degree of distinction.”

David A. Hopkins (@DaveAHopkins) is an associate professor of political science at Boston College who was a PhD student of Nelson W. Polsby from 2001 to 2007 and author most recently of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2017). He blogs about American politics at HonestGraft.com.