Rethinking the Primary System

candidatesThe presidential nomination process is a haphazard mess of primaries and caucuses that developed over years of tinkering and reform. Spread over a period of months, between states differing vastly in size, location, and demographics, the primary system forces candidates through a gauntlet of hand-shaking, media scrutiny, and debates. Concerning, though, is the emphasis placed on states that hold early primaries and caucuses, particularly Iowa and New Hampshire.

Voters in other states with later primaries, such as Connecticut, often do not have a chance to vote in an election that is still competitive. This raises the question of whether anything can be done to improve or regularize the system and to prevent voters in some states from being disenfranchised.

In the early 19th century, candidates were chosen with relative speed and efficiency by backroom meetings of Congressmen.  This process was, by design, anti-democratic and was soon replaced by party conventions, in which the entire nation’s party elite (elected or otherwise) would choose their candidate over the course of a single day. These conventions were conducted with intense negotiation and intrigue of party bosses, and the lack of transparency involved led to the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention. Soon after which both parties implemented the direct primary system used today.

There are several chief criticisms of the primary system.  First and foremost is the premium placed on early primaries.  The campaign focus on several individual states, scrutinized incessantly by the national media, distorts the national debate between candidates by catering rhetorically to a small subset of the population while the rest simply listens. Iowa and New Hampshire voters are remarkably different ideologically and demographically from the rest of the nation. The summer months spent watching politicians pander to these states’ electorates gives the rest of the nation an unclear understanding of candidates’ more general and nationally-applicable message.  States with late primaries receive no direct campaigning and often do not participate meaningfully in the process in any way. By mid-March, the candidate will almost certainly have become obvious.

Furthermore, because primaries, and particularly caucuses, are generally attended by party enthusiasts and elite, they are still not very democratic and force candidates to appeal to the ideological extreme within the party, a reversal of their strategy in the general election. The difficulty is that, unlike in the 1820’s or 1970’s, no alternate option seems viable.  Having a “national primary day” on which the whole country votes at once would certainly be “democratic,” but would be a logistical mess for campaigns and would place a massive premium on name recognition. An initially unknown candidate such as Bill Clinton in 1992 or Jon Huntsman in 2012 would never have a chance if not given the opportunity to campaign to a limited voting bloc.

There are, however, ways to improve the current system.  The length of the primary season is beneficial; though arduous, it tests candidates thoroughly and ensures (for the most part) that all skeletons are out of the closet come November.  There is no reason, however, that Iowa and New Hampshire must always go first; the calendar could be rearranged from election to election to allow other states a chance at the national spotlight. Another option is to group states together with dissimilar demographic makeup and voting tendencies.

The most important consideration, from the perspective of the national dialogue, is that differing factions within the party be given attention early in the process. Pairing Iowa and New Hampshire does a good job of this by testing candidates first among more social conservatives and next among more libertarian conservatives, but the system most branches out its exposure to varying views within the party.

While the primary system has done its job reasonably well thus far, avoiding the violence and chaos that characterized the 1968 Democratic National Convention, it can and should be improved.

 

Published by Austin Schaefer

Austin Schaefer is a staff writer for The Politic from Wilton, Connecticut. Contact him at james.schaefer@yale.edu.

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