The presidential primary system: Time to repeal and replace it

The Democratic party should be gearing up–right now–to completely revamp the presidential primary system. Of the many things that went horribly wrong in the 2016 Presidential election cycle, one of the fundamentals was the major parties’ system for deciding on their presidential nominees.

Our current presidential primary system is a disaster for political discourse, for serious candidates, and for our democracy. Just listen to what passes for political debate—particularly among the 2016 crop of Republican primary candidates—and you have all the evidence you need. For candidates, it’s all about proving that they are more right-wing conservative than the next person. And it’s all in pursuit of the brass ring of winning the earliest primaries/caucuses in the most conservative states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

And that, right there, is the problem. Because of the structure of the primary cycle, front-loaded with these ultra-conservative states, candidates feel compelled to tailor their messages to extreme right, because that’s who is motivated to come out for the caucuses and primaries. In addition, the early states have no big cities, so candidates do not feel the need to talk about the issues that concern urban dwellers: No mention of Ferguson, Black LIves Matter, Flint’s poisoned water system, etc.  They are interested only in pandering to the narrow concerns of rural and small-town voters, because their votes are the ones they need to build momentum for the rest of the crazy primary season.

So, what’s the solution? A total re-think of the way we determine the presidential nominees from each party.

Want to “repeal and replace” something? Let’s put that energy into coming up with something completely different.
I’m not proposing that we go back to the smoke-filled rooms of yore, when party bosses decided who the candidates would be, without any input from the electorate. [There is, however, a strong whiff of a new kind of party-boss smoke out there. It comes from the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Missouri’s billionaire would-be-kingmaker Rex Sinquefield, , and other super-wealthy men. They’re spending huge sums of money to push their personal agendas by buying politicians and funding their campaigns. But let’s put that aspect of our current system aside, for the moment, and look at other alternatives.]

Many people have said that a better structure would consist of a series of regional primaries. But before I get to that—and some of the other ideas that have been floating over the years, here is…

A brief history of primaries

It’s easy to think that the current primary structure is a built-in part of American political history, and, therefore, is not to be tinkered with—you know, that whole “originalist,” traditionalist thing. It’s not. Neither political parties nor primary elections are included in the U.S. Constitution: Primaries evolved over time, invented by political parties. There were primaries in some states in the early 1800s, but they were mostly non-binding, and they gave way to the party-boss system by the mid-1800s.

The current system of binding primaries [in which delegates are required to vote for their state’s nominee in the first round of voting at the national convention] is actually rather new.

According to Wikipedia:

The impetus for national adoption of the binding primary election was the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vice President Hubert Humphrey secured the nomination despite not winning a single primary under his own name. After this, a Democratic National Committee-commissioned a panel led by Senator George McGovern –that recommended that states adopt new rules to assure wider participation.

A large number of states, faced with the need to conform to more detailed rules for the selection of national delegates, chose a presidential primary as an easier way to come into compliance with the new national Democratic Party rules. The result was that many more future delegates would be selected by a state presidential primary. The Republicans also adopted many more state presidential primaries.

Iowa and New Hampshire

The now-all-important Iowa caucus began just 40 years ago. The New Hampshire primaries began 60 years ago, and they have become the center of attention in the battle to nominate the Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates. It’s obvious that the current system is terribly skewed, front-loaded with rural states that represent a tiny fraction of the ultimate number of delegates, and whose issues and preferences do not remotely represent the mainstream of American political discourse.

Resistance to change

But changing the system has proven to be a Sisyphean task, because states love going first and don’t want to surrender the advantages first-ness brings—even if sharing in a regional primary would be better for the common good of our electoral system and democracy.

Elected officials, political scientists, pundits, party leaders and many others—although I doubt that the list includes many state party chairpeople–have suggested alternative systems. The Congressional Record is littered with failed proposals going back decades. You can look ‘em up: 1980, 1985, 1991, 2007, 2011 for example. But, for what it’s worth, here are some current ideas:

Alternatives to the current presidential primary system

Fix The Primaries offers a handy summary of a range of alternatives–the links take you to helpful infographics with more detail. Solutions–some more logical than others– include:

The American Plan
Starting with small states and working towards large ones, the American Plan also incorporates random order to afford big states the chance to go early as well.

The National Plan
This plan calls for a national primary where voters can vote once between January and June and ballots are counted and tallied at the start of each month.

The Delaware Plan
This plan relies on “backloading” the primary schedule, that is, allowing less populated states to go first and the most populated to go last.

Interregional Primary Plan
Six groups of primaries or caucuses would be scheduled between March and June. On each date, a state or group of smaller states from one of six geographic regions of the country would go together.

Rotating Regional Plan
Under the proposal, the country is divided into four regions – Northeast, Midwest, West, and South, which take their turns voting first, then one region per month from March to June.

Regional Lottery Plan
State order would be decided by lottery on New Year’s Day. Two small states would be randomly selected to go first, followed by four regions also determined randomly.

One Day National Primary
This plan simply calls for primaries and caucuses in all states on the same day.

The Texas Plan
States are divided into four rotating groups with equal number of both electoral votes and total number of states per each group to provide an equal number of predominantly Republican states and predominantly Democratic states.

Please, people. Get over yourselves and pick one, already. [Personally, I think the Rotating Regional Plan–proposed by the National Association of Secretaries of State–makes the most sense.]

Political thought leaders on both the right and the left are dismayed by what they are seeing in the current system—and I use that term loosely—of presidential primaries. Even Republicans are recoiling from the monster created by our current system. On the left, Think Progress recently issued a call to “ban the Iowa Caucus,” stating that:

It’s as if Rube Goldberg designed a method of polling, implemented it in an unusually unrepresentative state, and then decreed that this state’s votes would receive greater weight than other state in the union.

We’ve finished the 2016 election cycle with an unlikely outcome. There are a lot of reasons we got what we got. No single factor or group is 100 percent culpable. But it’s painfully clear that the nominating system itself bears some of the responsibility. Neither party is happy with the result. But it’s going to be as difficult as ever to get the two major parties to agree on a new system.

To me, the answer is for one party–preferably the Democrats–to take the initiative and pick a new plan.They don’t have to look very far to find options [see above]: These ideas have been rolling around for years. And they don’t have to wait for consensus with Republicans. If the Democratic Party is in as much disarray as insiders and media are reporting, this is the time to do something transformational about one of the party’s most fundamental activities.

Don’t wait for the translation [to quote former UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson] or for the other party to catch up, just do it.


[Editor’s note: This is a post-election update of an article first posted on Occasional Planet in February 2016.]