The Primary Problem
April 11, 2012 1 Comment
The primary season is more than half over, and with former-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney all but assured the nomination of the Republican Party (especially now that former-Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has suspended his campaign), all I eyes have now turned to the general election though that doesn’t officially start until September after both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions have been held. But I wanted to look back at a few things that have been on my mind about this primary season… and it does pertain to the primary calendar in general, too.
Usually the media, and the parties themselves, want the race over as soon as possible. Before Santorum’s upset in Iowa and Gingrich’s win in Georgia, it looked like Mitt Romney would steamroll over everyone in the first month, and it would have, theoretically, been over then. But that’s not the way it worked out. In fact, it went longer than anyone anticipated. But the problem isn’t how many months, and how many contests had to play out before it was all but certain. The problem is the method of how our primaries/caucuses are done. There are generally three types of primaries/caucuses. There are closed primaries/caucuses in which only people that have declared themselves members of that particular party are allowed to vote. Keep in mind that each state can set its own rules on when people can declare such things. There are semi-closed primaries/caucuses which is the same as a closed primary/caucus except that independents and those that are undeclared are allowed to participate, as well. Then there is the open primary in which anyone from any party (and independents) can vote for a candidate in any party.
The problem with an open primary/caucus is that, when there is an incumbent running, members of that party can try to influence who the person will be running against by voting in the opposition’s election. Democrats/liberals have done this in certain open elections in 2012 since they have an incumbent. In 2008, there were some Republicans/conservatives who were doing it to the Democrats since the Republican Party wrapped up their nomination quickly and the Democrats drug theirs out through June.
A closed primary/caucus leaves something very important out of the nomination process… the independent (or non-partisan) voter whom that party needs in order to win the general election. Any kind of moderate candidate is usually pushed out in contests like these. If the candidate isn’t already tilted to the party extreme already, then they have to pander to the party voters that make up that extreme in order to win those primaries/caucuses. The bad thing is that they might alienate the moderates and independents (and maybe even some moderates on the other side who might be thinking of switching votes) by doing such a thing. And a candidate can have a real tough time trying to recenter himself/herself from such a drastic move. Without the independent voter, a candidate cannot win the general election, so why leave them out of the process entirely? It is imperative that those voters have a say in who the candidates are especially if they are going to be called upon to vote for that candidate in the general election. Semi-closed primaries/caucuses solve that problem by allowing independents and non-partisan (undeclared) voters participate.
The next biggest problem with our primaries/caucuses is the calendar itself. It’s usually spread from January – June… though the parties did try to start later this year, but Florida moved up it’s election so other states had to move up theirs. Since 1972, Iowa has held the first caucus of the election year and New Hampshire has held the first primary since 1920 (state law requires it to be the first primary). Other states soon follow, and the media begin to talk about momentum coming out of each state. In this ordeal, the list of candidates for both parties usually starts to dwindle once the first set of votes start being counted. Thus, in elections that are held later usually don’t have much of a choice in who the nominee is going to be. They are usually stuck with who’s left. So all the states try to congregate near the beginning so that they can have an equal say in who each nominee is going to be. This can be quite chaotic and a mess… and quite expensive for candidates that don’t have as much national notoriety or huge money chests as other candidates (who are usually termed front-runners even before votes are cast).
There have been several plans to revamp the primary/caucus calendar throughout recent years, but each of them have a flaw of one sort or another. One of the biggest is money and travel. (You can read those here.) Our calendar should be competitive and allow for those without national notoriety to actually have a chance in getting the nomination. As the process goes on, sometimes we find out that we like Candidate B (who wasn’t widely known when the elections started) more than Candidate A (who we’ve known as the front-runner even before voting began anywhere). But usually by the time this is figured out, Candidate A has already run away with things, and the matchup for the general election is already known before even half of the states have voted. Sounds like a problem to me.
So are the problems fixable? Of course they are… though most, if not all, still have flaws. The thing is to make the flaws spread out equally among all the candidates. First thing that should be done is that all states should go to a form of a closed primary/caucus so that not only can party members select their candidate, but independents (and undeclared/non-partisan) voters can participate by voting for the candidate they want, too. The second prong of this equation is the most complicated. As I stated earlier, there have been many revision plans for the current primary/caucus calendar. All of which have been defeated someway. (You can read up on them here.) My personal favorite is the Balanced Primary System, which is down near the bottom. It’s cost effective and can work for the lesser-known candidates and more widely-known candidates. Another option to put with this plan could be to have voting in states only once or twice a month… that way momentum gained in one set of elections might not carry to the next set. And no primary/caucus should be winner take all in terms of delegates. Delegates should be awarded on a representative scale as to the percentage of vote. The one exception being if a candidate receives at least 51% of the vote in a given state (while there are more than two candidates running). And each group of states must represent different parts of the country (Northeast, South, Midwest, and West) and have a wider-range of the voting populace from more liberal states to more conservative states to the more independent states. Again, the objective is to make it fair and competitive within each party and for voters of all sorts to have a say in the candidate they wish to see vote for.
As a quick little note here at the end, Americans Elect is doing things a bit differently. They are an organization working to get a third party candidate on the ballot in all 50-states. There is no party affiliation with them. They are working to nominate from the Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and the various third-parties in the country. As it gets closer to their June convention (which will be held online), their list grows longer instead of shorter as it works to give its delegates a complete voice in who they wish to see run. There is no state-by-state primary or caucus. All the voting is done on the day of it’s online convention. It’s an idea that is definitely modern and might actually work for them… but I doubt it would work for the major political parties though I’m not saying it couldn’t. Any thoughts on such a move that would allow voters across the country to determine their party candidates on one day… the day of that party’s national convention instead of the current state-by-state system?
There is also something called the Nonpartisan Blanket Primary in which all the candidates appear on the same ballot and the two highest voted candidates proceed to a runoff regardless of party affiliation. This is good for those voters that don’t just vote for one party or the other and spread out their votes. The state of Louisiana uses this method in some of its elections, though there is only a runoff if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote.