Many people in both major parties have soured on the presidential primary system. In 2016, the Democratic contest was riven by bitter arguments over whether the Democratic National Committee had put a thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton in her race against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s ascent revealed the inability of a major party to prevent a celebrity non-politician from hijacking the system and securing its nomination. (Republicans ultimately made their peace with that outcome.) This year’s Democratic primary race has hardly impressed observers as a model of candidate selection, either: It’s featured a multibillionaire who skipped the first four states, the early winnowing of all nonwhite candidates, shouty debates and a failure of the party’s moderate wing to settle on one person.
From a historical perspective, the story of presidential primaries has largely been about the rise of voter power and the falling clout of party insiders; both parties still struggle with striking the right balance between those forces. With Super Tuesday a few days away, Outlook asked a range of politicians, scholars and operatives how they’d reform the presidential primary system. They proposed solutions from changing the calendar to changing the map — and even changing the Constitution to reduce the parties’ power to choose the presidential nominees.
How we got the primary system we have now
The primary system as we know it is a fairly recent invention: For most of American history, party insiders decided who would run for president.
For the first few decades after the ratification of the Constitution — which does not mention political parties — presidential candidates were nominated by caucuses of each party in Congress. That system broke down in the 1820s, and in 1831 the Anti-Masonic Party held the first presidential nominating convention; the Democratic Republicans followed with their own convention that year. Between 1831 and 1972, parties selected their candidates using national conventions of delegates chosen by state leaders.
Although elected officials and party officials controlled the process, it wasn’t immune to public pressure. From time to time, new groups could and did take over the party leadership — Sen. Barry Goldwater’s co-opting of the Republican Party in the 1960s being a dramatic example. But unless you were willing to invest the time to become a precinct chair or a county chair of your party, you had no say in who its standard-bearer would be. From the progressive era on, parties sometimes held primaries, but they were used largely to test the popular appeal of candidates, later chosen by elites.
The insider-driven system broke down after the tumultuous Democratic convention of 1968. Antiwar protesters were incensed that the Democrats selected Hubert Humphrey, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president, even though he hadn’t won a single primary. Throwing a bone to the protesters, the party formed a commission to study ways to improve the process. Chaired by Sen. George McGovern (S.D.) and Rep. Donald Fraser (Minn.), it recommended a fresh set of rules that were partly implemented for the 1972 Democratic convention and fully in place by 1976. Republicans soon copied most of them.
Perhaps the most significant change was making primaries “binding.” Delegates are awarded to candidates on the basis of primary votes, and those delegates are expected to vote for that candidate at the convention.
Democrats tried to restore a modicum of party control in the early 1980s by creating “superdelegates” who were not bound by primary outcomes. But they stepped back from that system after the 2016 clash between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hillary Clinton.
Today, the two national parties establish the rules of the road, but they do not control the outcomes — as the nomination of Donald Trump robustly demonstrated. Once he started to win primaries, party leaders wanted to stop him but couldn’t. America’s political parties have now relinquished their role in choosing presidential candidates to a degree unheard of in other major democracies.
Amend the Constitution to end the two-party monopoly
If the Iowa Democratic Party doesn’t understand that its incompetent caucuses — marked by tech glitches that left the result unclear for days — increased the chance that President Trump will be reelected, its members are too delusional to be trusted with being the first in the nation to choose a presidential nominee.
After the debacle there in early February, I propose the following deal: Iowa gets to hold the first Democratic nominating contest only if the state party changes the format from caucuses to an election. The caucuses may be fun for Iowans, but they are undemocratic (not everyone has time to spend hours arguing with their neighbors over politics) and far too easy to corrupt (there is a good reason for a secret ballot). If local leaders insist on holding caucuses, the Democratic Party should move Iowa’s vote later in the year, when the state can do less damage.
This would help at the margins, but it would do little to fix the biggest problem with the way Americans select our presidential nominees: The two major parties have way too much power over the rules. Democrats have shifted to the left, and Republicans have moved (even further) rightward, leaving many nominal members of each party — not to mention independents — feeling out of place. So long as the parties maintain their current degree of power to select candidates, we will see qualified men and women conclude that they are insufficiently liberal or conservative to win a majority of either party’s delegates.
Normally, I would suggest that Congress enact legislation to create a selection process that makes it likelier that nominees’ views are more in line with those of most Americans (whose political views tend to be an amalgamation of Democratic, Republican and independent policies). But trusting Congress to do this would be more delusional than trusting the Iowa caucus app. Congress does not want a president who is not a card-carrying member of one of the two parties; that’s one issue where bipartisan agreement is rock-solid.
The only solution is to amend the Constitution to create a commission with the power to create rules that are more likely to give Americans the opportunity to elect a competent, capable president. Such a commission would probably shorten the campaign season and recommend spending limits (possibly including a more robust public-financing option).
The language should be simple: “Congress shall create a 10-person Federal Commission with the power to write the rules governing the U.S. Presidential election.” I know amending the Constitution is difficult. Worthy causes always are. Unfortunately, it is the only way of correcting the defects in our current system.
The men who wrote our Constitution feared that factions could do damage to our representative government. If today’s polarized political situation existed in 1787, I am confident the founders would have included language to prevent political parties from monopolizing the rules for selecting presidential candidates.
Forget states. Do the first primaries in key House districts instead.
Technology — specifically the Internet — has upended primaries, robbing parties of power, just as it has upended almost everything else. There’s no going back to the days when “the party” could stop an insurgent candidate. Good or bad, that’s reality.
Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party in 2016 proved that the GOP is spent as a candidate-selecting force. An insurgent from outside the party, armed with a bellicose Twitter account, demolished the establishment — which then lined up behind him.
The Democratic Party’s power to choose its nominee is over, too. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest change has been the rise of small-donor money.
Once, if the party’s big-dinner donors all moved behind the establishment front-runner, the front-runner was guaranteed to become the nominee. That all changed with Howard Dean’s campaign, which I managed in 2004. With very primitive online fundraising tools, we broke the record for the most money raised by a Democrat to that point. The establishment rallied to stop Dean, and won. But four years later, Barack Obama rolled over the pro-Clinton establishment, raising close to half a billion dollars from small online donations. In 2020, Joe Biden’s reliance on the establishment donor base puts him at a disadvantage relative to candidates who can outraise him online (not to mention the billionaires).
Voters hold the power now. But the one area where a party can exert some control is its primary calendar. If the first primary had been in South Carolina, not Iowa, we might be talking about a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris race. Here’s the challenge: How do we offer an early contest that allows someone like Pete Buttigieg to come out of nowhere but is also diverse enough to be representative of the nation?
I propose that the first “primary” should not be held in a state or a regional group of states. Rather, clusters of three congressional districts in three different regions of the country would be the sites of the first contest. Ideally, the clusters would be in areas Democrats need to win in a general election. So in the Southwest, three congressional districts from Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico would make up one cluster; in the Midwest, it would be districts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio; and in the Southeast, the districts might be drawn from North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. These places would all hold primaries on the same day in February. Nine congressional districts would be small enough to give a dark-horse contender a chance to break out, yet the results might also help voters measure the strength of the candidates across three regions.
It may not be perfect, but it’s better than what we’ve got.
Hold more debates — and more kinds of them
It may be hard to believe — does it feel as if we haven’t had a chance to see the candidates square off against each other? — but the biggest change in presidential primaries over the past decade is the dramatic reduction in the number of debates.
In 2008, the Democratic candidates debated 26 times, while Republicans faced off 21 times. In 2012, Republicans debated 20 times. But in 2016, the candidates debated roughly half as often, and the Democrats are on a similar pace this cycle.
The reduction started after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to Barack Obama. The Republican National Committee’s post-election autopsy called the number of debates “ridiculous” because “they’re taking candidates away from other important campaign activities” — namely, fundraising to pay for TV ads.
In an attempt to protect future front-runners, the RNC sanctioned a limited number of debates in 2016 — a move establishment Democrats supporting Hillary Clinton were happy to follow. The problem is that voters often make decisions based on what they see of the candidates in authentic, unscripted moments; that’s why campaigns value earned media so much more than paid media, and why the debates are do-or-die events. It is clear that voters feel they get something out of the debates, given that their ratings can reach NFL levels: 19.7 million people watched the Democrats’ Las Vegas faceoff.
Limiting debates deprives talented newcomers of opportunities to break through. In 2016, my then-boss, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), did very well in each of the early showdowns, but our campaign always lost momentum in the weeks between them. This time, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) did well in some debates but couldn’t build enough momentum to get to the top tier. More debates early in the process could give underdogs a chance to break out.
Early debates can also winnow the field and improve later debates. In the 2012 election, several Republicans with high expectations — including another former boss, Tim Pawlenty — were derailed early after poor debate performances. As a result, the final debate on Fox News before the Iowa caucuses featured a reasonable seven candidates. In contrast, Fox News invited 12 Republicans to debate before the 2016 caucuses, and it was a circus (spilling onto a second stage).
In addition to more debates, the parties should allow more formats. Right now, the only time candidates face off is when everybody is invited, resulting in crowded, raucous, multistage competitions for airtime. Under looser rules, independent groups and media outlets could host unique debates among a variety of candidates — Emily’s List, for example, which supports pro-choice Democratic women, could host a debate for just the female candidates.
The ultimate irony of the parties’ debate limits? The establishment favorites haven’t been protected, as the parties had hoped. Instead, the beneficiaries have been Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Invite independents into the process
The Democratic Party ought to open the nominating process to voters registered as independents, allowing them to sign up as Democrats on primary day. Sixteen states have created open primaries through laws or referendums, according to the nonprofit group Open Primaries, although the parties have the authority to do so unilaterally. Yet Democrats have done so in only six states, the group notes.
Reaching out to such voters — currently alienated by the two major parties — would increase the chances that the Democratic nominee can win in November. At the same time, the party needs to work to strengthen its bonds with its existing members.
The sad but simple truth is that “being a Democrat” (or a Republican, for that matter) no longer means very much to many Americans. According to the most recent Gallup poll, only 27 percent of voters identify as Democrats, and 30 percent say they are Republicans. At the same time, 42 percent call themselves independents, including half of millennial voters (and more than one-third of black and Latino millennials). This share of American voters who don’t identify with any party has held constant for well over a decade.
When I was a youngster in Utica, N.Y., I delighted in knocking on doors with my mom or passing out literature on Election Day. Back then, people went to precinct meetings and knew the names of their precinct captain and ward leader. The party worked for them, and they worked for the party. Today, for many, being a member of a political party merely means being on a list to get emails, mail or robocalls asking for money or a vote.
Imagine the reaction if Democratic staffers and volunteers went systematically door to door, asking voters not for a donation or a vote but about, say, any problems they might be having with government agencies, and if the party might offer assistance or advice?
During meetings of the Unity Reform Commission, formed after the bitter 2016 primary race, many Democratic stalwarts rejected that idea as costly and cumbersome — just as they rejected opening up the primaries to independent voters. Some of them told me open primaries would diminish the importance of registering as a Democrat, or might dilute the impact of important constituencies, such as black and Latino voters. Such issues are not to be taken lightly, but, as the survey data shows, many millennials from these key groups also feel distant from the party — and no one is helped if we lose elections.
The Democratic Party needs to give voters, including independents, a reason to become engaged in party-building. Since we need the votes of independents in the fall, shouldn’t we give them a voice in the spring?
Hold all the primaries as early as possible
When Iowa Democrats went to their caucus sites Feb. 3, 11 candidates were competing to be the party’s presidential nominee. Little more than a week later, the field was down to eight. As the 2020 nomination process unfolds, candidates will continue to drop out, meaning voters in states holding later contests will have fewer choices than earlier voters did.
That’s a strong argument for “front-loading” primaries: scheduling more of them sooner in the process. With front-loaded calendars, more citizens get to weigh in when there are meaningful choices to be made, and more candidates get to make their cases to a broad array of voters.
The national parties dislike front-loading. They hold a romanticized view of the door-to-door politicking and momentum-building that can happen when you start with small states, and when primaries are spread out. With that in mind, the national parties allow four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) to hold contests during the first month of the process. All the other states can schedule their contests between the first Tuesday in March and mid-June.
But this still leaves states with lots of flexibility: They should schedule their contests as early as the parties allow them to.
The most front-loaded primary in history came in 2008, when Super Tuesday distributed 52 percent of pledged Democratic delegates in 24 states — leading the media to dub the day Super Duper Tuesday (or Tsunami Tuesday). Hillary Clinton had expected to wrap up the nomination before the tsunami. But Barack Obama was able to hang on, and because he basically split the day’s delegates, he could continue in the race. In the end, voters in all 50 states got to choose between putting the first African American or the first woman at the top of the 2008 Democratic ticket.
By contrast, in a much less front-loaded calendar in 1992, Bill Clinton became the presumptive nominee after a mere 27 states voted. The other 23 states had no meaningful say.
This year is modestly front-loaded. The candidates who survive to compete on Super Tuesday have a shot at more than 34 percent of pledged delegates. Still, voters in states with May or June contests will have far fewer candidates to choose from than the Super Tuesday states will.
Breaking up the Iowa-New Hampshire-Nevada-South Carolina monopoly and having a flurry of primaries right off the bat would be ideal. But party rules protect those early states and punish others that jump the line, so the next-best solution would be voluntary front-loading by the other 46 states and the District. States have a choice between an important early primary and a meaningless late one. They should opt to empower their voters.
Start with states that aren’t quite so white
By now, we all know the problem with the tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire kicking off the primary process: Neither state reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of either the Democratic Party (which is 43 percent nonwhite) or the country as a whole. According to the Census Bureau, the United States is 60 percent white, 13 percent black, 18 percent Latino and about 6 percent Asian American. Iowa, by contrast, is 85 percent white, 4 percent black, 6 percent Latino and 3 percent Asian American. New Hampshire, with its 90 percent white population, is even less representative.
From there, the contests have moved on to Nevada (49 percent white) and South Carolina (63 percent), but the tone of the competition is often set after the first couple of states — and many candidates have already dropped out.
Almost any other system would be better for giving a more diverse set of voters a say. My preference would be for each party to hold all of its primary elections and caucuses on one day, 60 days before each party’s convention. This would shift the spotlight away from the horse-race side of politics and force citizens and the media to focus on candidates’ policy positions. But if the parties insist on having one or two states get things started, then they should randomly assign the order. Such quadrennial rotation would give diverse states like North Carolina (63 percent white) or Georgia (52 percent) a chance to shape the early stages of a primary race.
The current setup has fatal flaws. Polls out of Iowa help to define the early narratives about candidates, for instance, yet it’s mostly white people being queried. The messages candidates deliver early on may also play down issues of importance to members of minority groups, such as police-community relations, education and affordable housing. Candidates of color may feel pushed to run intentionally “deracialized” campaigns. Campaigning in such an environment is bad practice, too, since Democratic candidates later have to appeal to diverse sets of voters in other states.
Scholars have raised questions about the accuracy of polling of Latino, black and Asian American voters nationally. But the minority populations are so small in Iowa and New Hampshire that the problems are amplified: It’s a major challenge to get accurate samplings of such voters.
Persuading the Democratic Party to hold all its primaries at once — my ideal reform — might not be possible. But switching up which states go first is a simple change that would immediately help.
Get rid of superdelegates — completely
‘Superdelegates” had some of their power stripped from them after the contentious 2016 Democratic primary contest. Now it’s time to finish the job: They ought to be neutered entirely.
Superdelegates debuted at the 1984 Democratic convention, after the party reworked its rules to respond to President Jimmy Carter’s calamitous defeat in 1980. The idea was that these special delegates — typically politicians and senior party officials — wouldn’t be bound by the decisions of state primary voters and caucusers: They could throw their weight behind whichever candidate they thought would perform best in the general election. This year, there are 771 superdelegate votes and 3,979 pledged delegates (who are committed to a candidate but have the right to change their votes). The problem is that there can be a chasm between the judgments of party insiders and the grass roots about which candidates are most electable.
Superdelegates overwhelmingly went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, for example. Although she also defeated Bernie Sanders in the pledged-delegate count, the superdelegates were listed in news stories tracking the election along with pledged delegates; that produced the illusion that Clinton had amassed more delegates than she truly had (since superdelegates can and do change their votes at the convention based on primary outcomes). The false impression that a Clinton victory was inevitable may even have discouraged Sanders supporters from turning out in late-voting states.
After that, the rules were changed, and superdelegates will not be permitted to vote on the first presidential nominating ballot this year. That’s an improvement, but consider that the convention itself could change that rule, reverting to letting superdelegates vote on the first ballot. Worse, superdelegates themselves could take part in such a vote. It would not surprise some of us if establishment Democrats tried to restore the old rule, or manipulated the interpretation of the rules, to block a Sanders nomination. Doing so would tear the party apart, perhaps irreparably.
A certain number of elected party leaders could retain the title of “automatic” delegates, but they should not have a “free” or “wild card” vote at any stage. Instead, they should pledge to a candidate before their state’s primary or caucuses. If their candidates don’t earn votes at the state level, they wouldn’t have a say — so they couldn’t interfere in the democratic selection of a nominee.
Even in their weakened form, superdelegates are super-problematic. There is nothing preventing a financial or pharmaceutical corporation from lobbying them to use their votes to nominate a particular candidate, for instance. Sometimes, Democratic National Committee members defend superdelegates by observing that they are responsive to public opinion: They will switch from an “establishment” to an “insurgent” candidate if the insurgent is winning (as they did with Barack Obama in 2008). But what’s the point of having delegates with such power if they are permitted to flip their votes to make sure they are on the winning side? Much better to just ditch them.
Make ‘contested conventions’ a routine event
Democrats may be headed for a “contested convention,” a scenario that many party members view with alarm: Several candidates could amass substantial numbers of delegates without anyone winning a majority — leaving the convention to choose the nominee through negotiations.
But a contested convention would be a good thing. And we should change the rules of primaries to make them more likely.
Contested conventions would produce more democratic outcomes than the system that’s become the norm, in which voters in a handful of states cast ballots (or caucus) in the first month of the campaign, winnowing the field. Candidates who win 20 or 30 percent of the vote in unrepresentative Iowa and New Hampshire get media attention and a fundraising boost, and then one typically emerges as the party’s only choice. This is not a reflection of the “will of the people” but of the peculiar dynamics at the very beginning of the race. It’s hard to call it democracy at all.
The nomination system is already set up to do something better. Representatives from across the country gather to select a candidate at the party convention, arriving in rough proportion to the preferences of voters. They should represent those voters — acting more like a legislature than they currently do.
In other areas of governance, we realize that direct democracy — in which everyone votes on everything — doesn’t scale. Yet when it comes to candidate choice, both parties have given up on representative deliberation.
Negotiation at a convention could bring a party with divergent views closer to consensus on the strongest nominee, and good-faith discussion could ease divisions rather than deepen them. Let’s say the leading candidate has 35 percent of the delegates, and two others each have just under 30 percent. The first candidate has a strong case for being the nominee but ought to do something to get support from the rest of the party, perhaps offering the vice presidency to someone from another faction. If they won’t negotiate, that’s a sign that they shouldn’t be the standard-bearer. Maybe the supporters of the second and third choices would decide to unite behind one or the other — a democratic decision.
There are several ways to make contested conventions happen more often. Proportional allocation of delegates by state is a start. The Democrats do this everywhere, though Republicans cling to winner-take-all in some cases. But Democrats award delegates only to candidates who get at least 15 percent of the vote. That figure should be much lower — say, 5 percent — so delegate shares at the convention are more representative of voters’ preferences. And the parties should try to keep candidates who can get 5 percent in the race as long as possible; a much shorter primary calendar would help.
Popular skepticism is a major obstacle. Too many Americans view political parties as barriers to democracy, rather than central mechanisms for it. But with a contested convention, Americans could watch the important decisions about candidates being made on television by representatives from all the states. Currently, they watch choices made by the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire. Which one sounds more democratic?
Let voters rank their top choices
Donald Trump, a celebrity outsider, won the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 because the establishment split its vote among Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). Polls often showed that Cruz or Rubio would have beaten Trump head-to-head, but Trump benefited from the bandwagon effect of repeatedly coming in first, even with low percentages of the vote in most early primaries.
Democrats this year face a similar challenge, with a fractured field resulting in low-plurality winners who may not accurately represent their party; backers of establishment Democrats are spreading their votes across several candidates. Parties used to address fragmentation at conventions, with delegates negotiating a consensus, but there’s no going back to smoke-filled rooms. The primary system used to help identify consensus nominees, too, but that no longer works in an era of self-funders and small donors.
The solution is straightforward: ranked-choice voting, or RCV. It’s simple: Voters in each state would indicate their candidate preferences — first, second, third — until they are indifferent about the rest. A series of “instant runoffs” occur, with last-place candidates eliminated; the next-ranked choices of people who voted for that candidate are then tallied. The process is repeated until a winner has more than 50 percent. The winner by definition will have demonstrated appeal to backers of other candidates.
Ranked-choice voting is catching on here and abroad. The Labour Party in Britain and the Conservative Party in Canada are picking new leaders this year with RCV, Maine uses it for all its federal elections, and more than 20 cities have adopted it. In this year’s primaries, Democrats in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming are casting ranked-choice votes.
The parties ought to use RCV in all states — and rotate the order in which states vote. RCV can work with both proportional and winner-take-all rules (although even states that divide up delegates among several top finishers should report the RCV majority winner). If the system caught on, pollsters would naturally do RCV polls that would help party backers identify their most unifying candidates.
Both parties want nominees who reflect the preferences of their voters and give them the best chance to win in November. Much of the talk about “electability” is hot air. Ranked-choice voting, however, offers the best way for primary voters to crowdsource the answer.