A Broken Presidential Primary System
The American presidential primary process, particularly in the last two decades, has become known for its length as well as its emphasis on money. In primary fields that are becoming increasingly crowded–with 17 candidates for the Republican Party presidential primary in 2016 and 24 candidates (to date) for the Democratic Party presidential primary in 2020–candidates have become increasingly reliant on the attention surrounding early announcements, as well as big dollar donations from donors nationwide to fuel their campaign momentum into the various caucuses and primaries that take place. This is perceived as critical to win the right number of delegates and superdelegates to secure a victory going into the party convention in the summer of the election season. As a result, most candidates begin preparing for their presidential campaign launch nearly two years before the first primaries, and often announce their campaign officially with one full year to go before the first ballot is cast.
Each state in the United States has different rules and different timetables when it comes to how they select a nominee for president for a major political party. This gives states like Iowa and New Hampshire an enormous level of influence in determining the nominee for holding the first set of primaries. Meanwhile, states like New Jersey and New Mexico are not paid nearly as much attention to nationwide due to their later primary schedule.
The ways in which parties and states select a nominee (primaries or caucuses) can vary depending on the legislations and jurisdictions determined by the legislatures and state party committees. On top of that, the way in which each state’s delegates are allocated vary, and the two main parties in the United States have also developed different requirements for a presidential candidate to obtain a delegate vote. This has created a presidential primary system that is notoriously expensive, unbelievably lengthy, and incredibly inequitable. It also means every vote is not made to be of the same value.
On top of the confusing, non-uniform rules for voting and allocating delegates in each state, requirements for gaining a spot on a prime time primary debate and the number of such debates to be had have come under increasing controversy and scrutiny due to lack of consistency and perceived favouritism towards candidates that are more well-known and more well-funded, allowing parties to prioritize certain candidates over others when every candidate should have the same opportunity to make their case to the American people.
After the divisive campaign in 2016 involving a Democratic Party presidential primary that was heavily favoured towards Hillary Clinton and a Republican Party presidential primary whose debate rules created nationwide controversy, it is pertinent for the U.S. to adopt a comprehensive framework for major parties to nominate candidates for president in a way that benefits the party, the candidate and, most importantly, the American people.
Reforming Statewide Primaries and Caucuses
The first step in reforming the presidential primary system is to make sure that each state has a relatively equal level of influence when it comes to determining the presidential nominee for a major party.
Traditionally, the presidential primary process has begun with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, where the majority of the winners in the two states’ caucus and primary become the presidential nominee for the party. However, in many recent instances, particularly in the 2004 Democratic primary as well as the 2008 Democratic and Republican Primaries, the differences in polling between the choice of national Democrats and Republicans and Iowa/New Hampshire Democrats and Republicans has been more than evident. As a result, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have often changed the development of the primary in a way that voters in no other state are able to replicate, creating an imbalance in the influence of individual states within the primary process, with so much power concentrated on the early states, and not enough power concentrated on states with later contests such as New Jersey and California, whose choices should be equally influential as the choices made by Iowa and New Hampshire voters.
Some policy suggestions I have for lawmakers that would streamline the primary process across different states to make sure every state has a relatively equal amount of influence in determining the presidential nominee of a major party include:
- Ending the use of presidential caucuses in states to determine a presidential nominee, where statewide turnout rarely exceeds 20% due to the complicated process involved with caucusing for a candidate within each state, in favour of a statewide/territorial primary system for all 56 states, districts, and territories plus Americans Abroad. This reform would increase primary turnout nationwide and would encourage voter participation in a way that is comprehensive and would streamline the process for choosing a presidential nominee across different states to increase the influence of voters in each state when determining their nominee for president of the United States.
- Rotating the order in which state primaries occur by a process that would make the last primary state first every four years, the first primary state second, the second primary state third and so forth. After every state or region has been rotated and has received a chance to be the first primary state, the Democratic and Republican National Committee chairs would meet to determine a brand new order by which states would rotate their primary schedule, taking turns through a drawing in which the first draw is determined by a coin toss. This would ensure that every state has a chance at holding the level of influence and attention that is traditionally given to Iowa and New Hampshire, decreasing the concentration of power held by these traditionally early states.
- Establishing a primary voting schedule that would take place over six consecutive Tuesdays, with the first three Tuesdays consisting of ten contests each, and the final three Tuesdays consisting of nine contests each, with contests for each Tuesday determined by the rotation of contest order for the primary season that year. This would not only shorten the primary process dramatically for each party, but would also streamline the schedule of the presidential primaries to prevent the imbalance caused by some states holding primaries on an independent voting day while dozens of other states hold primaries on the same day, commonly known as Super Tuesday.
Monday, I’ll share more about reforming voting and primary voter participation rules and reforming delegate selection and allocation rules.