A National Primary Proposal

The next step in reforming the presidential primary system is to incorporate a national primary element into the presidential primary system.

With each party’s presidential primary determined on a state by state basis, many candidates have become increasingly aware of the importance of winning the right states in the primary election, as opposed to winning the most states or the most votes nationwide. On the Democratic side, although proportionality has helped to discourage a concentration of attention on a handful of states, most candidates still value a victory in the California and New York primaries to be more important than victories in the Mississippi or Alabama primaries. On the Republican side, the imbalance caused by certain states adopting a winner-take-all system while others adopt a proportional system means that many candidates rely on victories in winner-take-all states to gain an advantage in the delegate vote count. This creates a difference between the eventual popular vote percentage received by each candidate, and the eventual delegate vote percentage received by each candidate.

The lack of a fifty-state, nationwide element to the presidential primaries means that the national consensus of voters when it comes to selecting a presidential nominee is often ignored by the party’s presidential primary system, leading to discontent and dissatisfaction from voters nationwide who may feel as though their voices were not properly accounted for.

Some policy suggestions I have for lawmakers that would incorporate a fifty-state, nationwide element to the presidential primary system include:

  • Adopting a national primary element to the presidential primary process by which 20% of the delegates (national primary pledged delegates) for each party’s convention are allocated towards candidates on a federal, at-large basis under a formula suggested to party leaders which includes:
    • 60% of national primary pledged delegates allocated proportionally based upon the nationwide popular vote received by each candidate at the end of the primary process with a 5% threshold to obtain delegates.
    • 10% of national primary pledged delegates allocated proportionally based upon the number of primary contests won by each candidate.
    • 10% of national primary pledged delegates allocated proportionally based upon the number of equivalent electoral college votes won by each candidate.
    • 10% of national primary pledged delegates allocated proportionally based upon the number of counties won nationwide by each candidate.
    • 10% of national primary pledged delegates allocated proportionally based upon the number of congressional districts won nationwide by each candidate.

With the addition of this new element to the presidential primary system, the balance of power between states and the country as a whole will be adjusted, thereby leveling the playing field for presidential candidates vying for their party’s nomination, creating a process by which a party selects a nominee with the broadest and widest base of support in individual states as well as across the country.

Reforming Primary Debate Schedules and Qualifications

The final step in reforming the presidential primary system is by reforming the primary debate schedules for presidential candidates and the qualifications that must be met by each debate entrant.

After the emergence of a 17 candidate presidential field in the 2016 Republican Presidential Primary and the emergence of a 24 candidate presidential field in the upcoming Democratic Presidential Primary, one key area of controversy has surrounded the scheduling and the establishment of qualification rules for the primary debates. With so many candidates vying for a political party’s presidential nomination, it is not possible to put every candidate on the same stage at the same time while also having a civil debate on the issues that allows every candidate to make their case to the American people.

To address this, the Republican and Democratic National Committees both divided each debate into two in order to fit every candidate on the debate stages. In 2016, the Republican Party divided the debate into two time slots on the same day with a 5pm ET and 9pm ET debate each featuring different set of candidates separated by polling averages with the lower polling candidates featured in the 5pm debate and the higher polling candidates featured in the 9pm debate. This led to much controversy with the public and the media who began to characterize the 5pm debate as a “kid’s table debate” or an “underdog debate,” effectively prioritizing more well-known and more well-funded candidates over lower tier candidates for a spot in the prime time debate where more viewers tune in to engage in the conversation.

The Democratic National Committee this year sought to avoid the controversy surrounding the 2016 Republican Presidential Primary debates. In the process, however, they have encountered controversies of their own. In order to qualify for the first two Democratic debates this year, candidates have been required by the Democratic National Committee to have garnered either 1% support in national or early state polling from three recognized pollsters, or to have acquired 65,000 unique donors from 20 states, capping the number of total debate participants at 20 with priority given to candidates who have met both criteria. The debates are split between two nights with the line-ups drawn using a formula determined by polling. Though some expressed skepticism towards these rules for qualification, most praised the decision made by the Democratic National Committee for their efforts to maintain order and to streamline their primary debates. 

However, controversy arose after the Democrats subsequently announced that in order for a candidate to qualify for the third and fourth debates, they must receive 130,000 unique donors and acquire at least 2% in three national or early state polls, leading to public concerns regarding the party’s exertion of influence on the field to forcibly winnow down the number of candidates running for the party’s nomination.

With presidential fields becoming increasingly large in size, it is pertinent for parties to have fair and consistent rules regarding participation in their presidential debates in order to avoid favoritism towards more well-known, well-funded, or well-connected candidates.

Some policy suggestions I have for lawmakers that would streamline and make more consistent the rules for entering and participating in the presidential primary debates include:

  • Dividing debates over multiple nights for presidential fields larger than 12, with each night featuring an equal number of candidates selected by randomized drawing via criteria determined by party leaders. This would ensure that each candidate vying for a party’s presidential nomination would have an equal opportunity to convey their ideas and refute the ideas of their opponents.
  • Establish a universal set of six criteria, of which a candidate must meet at least three, in order to qualify for a presidential primary debate. This may include the following:
    • Acquiring at least 1% support in five qualifying national polls.
    • Acquiring at least 1% support in qualifying polls from five different states.
    • Acquiring at least 100,000 unique donations from 20 different states with a minimum of 100 donors from each state.
    • Acquiring at least 50,000 unique donations from 20 different states with a minimum of 100 donors from each state, of which at least 25,000 donations must be small dollar donations of $200 or less.
    • Acquiring at least 20 unique endorsements from national/state party leaders/officials from five different states.
    • Acquiring at least 65% favorability among party members in three qualifying national polls relative to the percentage of respondents who know the candidate, excluding the percentage of respondents who have heard of them but hold no opinion. For example, a candidate with 35% favorability in a poll where 25% of respondents have not heard of them while 25% have heard of them but form no opinion would qualify for the debate by receiving a technical favorability of 70% (35% divided by 100%-25%-20%).

These qualifications not only give candidates choice when it comes to the method by which they want to showcase their support among primary voters, but also allow the debate to feature candidates who have broad and diverse support for their candidacy.

A Better Presidential Primary System

The presidential primary system as it currently stands is not a sustainable long term method for selecting the best candidate for a major party’s presidential nominee. The current system prioritizes and favors candidates that are more well-funded and more well-known nationwide. This disadvantages candidates with bold, innovative ideas who may not have established a national popularity or donor base yet, and are looking for a chance to do so.

By implementing the reforms and proposals outlined in this three part series, party leaders would be able to put the party, the states, and the country on a path towards a better presidential primary system, one that is inclusive, democratic, and fair towards everyone involved in the primary process.