WASHINGTON - In 1964, an optimistic theory was slain, as such theories often are, by reality. Bernie Sanders' supporters should take note. So should all who are interested in rethinking how the parties choose presidential nominees.

The "conservatives in the woodwork" theory was: Millions of conservatives, bored by centrist presidential candidates, skipped elections but would pour out of the woodwork and into polling places if offered "a choice, not an echo." So, conservative Republicans achieved the nomination of Barry Goldwater, who then lost 44 states, partly because those swarms of nonvoting conservatives were mostly fictitious. A conservative majority had to be patiently made, which took 16 years.

Goldwater understood that after President Kennedy's assassination a distraught nation would not choose to have a third president in 14 months. But he also thought that his candidacy could make his party markedly more conservative. If Sanders has a "socialists in the woodwork" theory, he is daft. But some Sanders supporters might think a second Donald Trump term is an acceptable price to pay for a Sanders nomination that moves his party as dramatically leftward as Goldwater's nomination moved his party rightward.

The nation, however, needs a nominating process that minimizes the probability of kamikaze candidacies and maximizes the probability of selecting plausible presidents. Hence it needs a retreat from the populist idea that the voice of the people is easy to ascertain and should be translated, unmediated and unrefined, directly into nominee selection.

Populism has been embraced by both parties since 1968, when Hubert Humphrey won the Democrats' nomination without entering any primaries. (Although a switch of about 300,000 November votes spread over four states would have made him president.)

In 1972, Democrats made their process more plebiscitary - more primaries, less influence for political professionals - in order to elicit and echo the vox populi. This, however, produced a nominee favored by the party's most intense minority, the anti-Vietnam war cohort: South Dakota Sen. George McGovern lost 49 states. Twelve presidential election cycles later, both parties are still uncomfortably holding the populist wolf by the ears.

Political scientist Raymond J. La Raja and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution recommend a recalibration. They do not favor what political realities would not permit - abandoning primaries (La Raja and Rauch prefer them to caucuses, which are more susceptible to capture by the elderly and those "for whom politics is a passion"). Rather, they recommend leavening mass participation with vetting by professionals - "political careerists with skin in the game" serving as gatekeepers or quality-control evaluators of candidates before the primaries begin. "In 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee worked aggressively to weed out weak and extreme candidates in swing districts."

Doing something similar in presidential politics is difficult. The process has no gatekeepers: Remember the 2012 cycle, when Herman Cain had his 15 minutes as a front-runner? Misguided campaign finance regulations have diverted money away from experienced parties to unseasoned groups with minority agendas. The 2016 process illustrated the difficulty of aggregating voters' preferences when there are many candidates: A demagogic charlatan won without winning a majority of primary votes until after the nomination was effectively settled. Sanders' success so far this year demonstrates La Raja and Rauch's warning that in a congested field of candidates, many will shun coalition-building in favor of wooing purists.

In 1924, the parties' professionals blocked the presidential ambitions of industrialist Henry Ford, a racist and anti-Semite. In 1976, Democratic insiders helped clear the field in Florida's presidential primary to enable Jimmy Carter to end the candidacy of the racist George Wallace. Today, however, the power of party professionals is negligible compared to that of the media. They prefer flamboyant political showhorses to transactional, coalition-building workhorses, and become accomplices of fringe candidates and combative amateurs.

La Raja and Rauch suggest various "filters" by political professionals to mitigate the "democracy fundamentalism" of today's nomination process: e.g., more political professionals as "superdelegates" eligible to vote on conventions' first ballots; pre-primary votes of confidence in candidates by members of Congress and governors; "abolishing or dramatically increasing" contribution limits to the parties. But a precondition for all improvement is, they acknowledge, "to change the mindset that regards popular elections as the only acceptable way to choose nominees."

Limiting and influencing voters' choices by involving professional politicians early in the nomination process would require risk-averse political professionals to go against today's populist sensibility. But if this November the choice is between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the professionals might consider letting go of the wolf's ears.

George Will writes for The Washington Post.

Recommended for you