Some discussion this week by James and Steven about primary elections, and the broken process currently employed in the USA for selecting the major parties’ presidential candidates. The discussion is prompted, in part, by the recent news that California may move its presidential primary up to February, a move that would not only make the largest (by far) state’s voters relevant for a change, but also thereby make the entire process somewhat more national and slightly less absurd than it is now.
When I was in grad school long ago (OK, about 20 years ago), one of my professors (a leading scholar on US parties) circulated a draft paper entitled something like, “Is it time for a national primary?â€ The answer was yes then and is still yes now.
Opposition to a national primary is usually centered on fear that it would benefit only the richest candidates. However, as James put it, quoting Dan Conley of Political Insider:
that â€œonly the richest candidates had a shot at winning the nomination and that no issues would be discussed in any depth whatsoeverâ€ perfectly describes the status quo, not some post-apocalyptic future.
Indeed, those with the money and name recognition are already in the driverâ€™s seat, and the notion that the sequential primary season with small states coming first will let a â€dark horseâ€ win is a quaint notion that never had much basis in reality.
Almost everyone remembers Jimmy Carter coming out of “nowhere” and “winning” the Iowa caucuses (which are not even a primary election) in 1976. However, hardly anyone remembers that the actual winner was a slate of “uncommitted” delegates. Well, really, no one wins the Iowa caucuses, for two reasons: First, as with most caucuses and primaries nowadays, the delegates are allocated proportionally (as they should be, if one must have delegates at all), and not all to the plurality candidate (or non-candidate in the case of Iowa 1976). Second, because the caucus night is not actually when delegates are selected for the national convention, but rather the first stage of a complex multi-stage process leading up to state party conventions at which the delegates to the national convention are finally chosen.
That the USA continues to tolerate nomination processes that are grounded in mythical “retail politics” of no relevance to administering the world’s most important national office is a real failure of American democratic imagination.
Of course, we also continue to tolerate the electoral college, which similarly de-nationalizes the contest for our only elected national authority. Which leads me to wonder, would a national primary bypass the state parties and delegate-selection altogether? If so, we would have a direct primary for an office not (yet) directly elected in the general. Most likely such a primary would not be direct, even if there were a single-shot national primary day. So, how would it work?
My preference would be a direct national primary by instant runoff and abolishing the archaic government-subsidized conventions altogether. But that’s because I am clearly beyond the mainstream.