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Rationalizing the Presidential Nomination Process

Our democracy will benefit if components from debates to primaries to conventions are given much-needed updates.

October 28, 2021

Long before the first early vote was cast in the Novem­ber 2020 general elec­tion, the lengthy campaign season offered its own chal­lenges to fair­ness and demo­cracy. None of them were as dramatic or injur­i­ous to demo­cratic norms as the post-elec­tion assault on the legit­im­acy of Joe Biden’s elec­tion. But this does not mean that the rest of the 2020 campaign should fade away without seri­ous analysis and discus­sion of poten­tial aven­ues for reform.

Little in Amer­ican polit­ical life is as ad hoc as the way that we nomin­ate pres­id­en­tial candid­ates. Over the last six decades, the trans­form­a­tion in how we choose pres­id­ents has been based on happen­stance as much as rational design. There is no good reason, for example, why the campaign calen­dar should begin with the unrep­res­ent­at­ive Iowa caucuses, other than that Jimmy Carter put them on the polit­ical map in 1976 with his surprise win after intense campaign­ing.

As a result, and to the detri­ment of our demo­cracy, many aspects of the system reflect the law of unin­ten­ded consequences. South­ern Demo­crats created the first Super Tues­day in 1984 by group­ing together their states’ primar­ies in an effort to encour­age the nomin­a­tion of a moder­ate like Ohio Sen. John Glenn. Instead, the Demo­crats nomin­ated liberal Walter Mondale. But the front-load­ing of the primary calen­dar has become a quad­ren­nial tradi­tion as states — in a desper­ate effort for relev­ance — cluster their primar­ies on the same dizzy­ing Tues­day in early March.

I have been cover­ing national polit­ics for four decades and 11 pres­id­en­tial races. Over the years, I have become concerned that the system under which we nomin­ate pres­id­en­tial candid­ates does not enhance demo­cracy or voter delib­er­a­tion. What follows are nonpar­tisan thoughts about plaus­ible reforms for 2024 and 2028, regard­less of who is running for pres­id­ent in either party. These ideas are presen­ted with modesty since many of the prob­lems are knotty. And even though the topic is beyond the purview of this essay, my cher­ished profes­sion of polit­ical journ­al­ism is culp­able as well amid the current crisis of demo­cracy.

This essay is an update of a report that I wrote for the Bren­nan Center in 2017, “The Chosen One: Thoughts on a Better, Fairer, and Smarter Way to Pick Pres­id­en­tial Nomin­ees.” The 2020 campaign and further reflec­tions on the turbu­lence of the Trump era have promp­ted me to modify some of the ideas that I advanced in that prior report. But my goal — then and now — is to bring as much demo­cracy and delib­er­a­tion as possible to the way that we nomin­ate and elect pres­id­ents.

How we got here

Theodore H. White's book, "The Making of the President 1960"

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the public­a­tion of what remains the most influ­en­tial book in history about how Amer­ica nomin­ates and elects its pres­id­ents. The Making of the Pres­id­ent 1960, with its rivet­ing back­stage account of the elec­tion of JFK, won the Pulitzer Prize and sat atop the best-seller lists for a year. Theodore White’s endur­ing clas­sic can serve as a marker for how dramat­ic­ally pres­id­en­tial campaigns and elec­tions have changed since the mid-20th century.

In 1960, despite all the atten­tion lavished on Kennedy’s victory in the nonbind­ing West Virginia primary, almost all conven­tion deleg­ates in both parties were selec­ted in caucuses domin­ated by polit­ical insiders. There were almost no intra­party debates, although Kennedy and Lyndon John­son made a low-key joint appear­ance before the Massachu­setts and Texas deleg­a­tions at the 1960 conven­tion. Most conven­tion deleg­ates had only limited free will, defer­ring for the most part to the wishes of their state’s governor or domin­ant polit­ical boss.

The modern pres­id­en­tial primary system emerged from the tear gas–laden chaos of the 1968 Demo­cratic Conven­tion in Chicago. As Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, points out in her invalu­able book Primary Polit­ics: Everything You Need to Know About How Amer­ica Nomin­ates Its Pres­id­en­tial Candid­ates, one-quarter of the deleg­ates to the 1968 conven­tion had been selec­ted in 1967, long before Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy launched their anti­war candid­a­cies. The obvi­ous unfair­ness of this system, which helped assure the nomin­a­tion of Hubert Humphrey, who never entered a single 1968 primary, created irres­ist­ible pres­sures for reform. By 1980, 33 states were select­ing their conven­tion deleg­ates in bind­ing primar­ies as power dramat­ic­ally shif­ted from polit­ical bosses to partisan voters.

The year 1980 was also a time of trans­ition in terms of debates play­ing a cent­ral role in the fight for the nomin­a­tion. Despite the aura surround­ing the four Kennedy–Richard Nixon faceoffs in 1960, primary debates had been a haphaz­ard and occa­sional affair. Jimmy Carter debated only twice before he was nomin­ated in 1976, and Ronald Reagan never got to share a debate stage with Gerald Ford that year. All this changed in 1980 when Reagan and George H. W. Bush debated six times on the road to the GOP conven­tion.

Image of TV studio where John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon engage in a 1960 presidential debate Bettmann/Getty
One of the four 1960 pres­id­en­tial debates between Demo­cratic nominee John F. Kennedy and Repub­lican nominee Richard Nixon.

The struc­ture and spon­sor­ship of these primary debates have evolved over the years from candid­ate-funded events (Reagan meant it liter­ally in 1980 when he shouted, “I paid for this micro­phone”) to today’s overhyped cable news ratings bonan­zas with their count­down clocks, some­times rauc­ous audi­ences, and game show–­like produc­tion.

At the same time, the culmin­a­tion of the nomin­a­tion race — polit­ical conven­tions — are becom­ing as much of an arti­fact of the past as cigar smoke–­filled back rooms. Over the past 60 years, conven­tions have gone from decision-making bodies to four-day pep rallies. Not since the 1980s has there been a seri­ous battle on the conven­tion floor over anything, includ­ing party plat­forms. In 2008, at the end of the Demo­cratic primar­ies, Hillary Clin­ton was about 200 deleg­ates behind Barack Obama. In prior decades, Clin­ton would have taken her fight to the conven­tion floor as Ted Kennedy did in 1980, even though he had a much larger deleg­ate defi­cit. Instead, reflect­ing the new real­it­ies of primary voter sover­eignty, ahead of the conven­tion Clin­ton permit­ted her deleg­ates to support Obama. By 2016 Donald Trump was anoin­ted as the Repub­lican nominee in early May, when he had won only about 40 percent of the deleg­ates.

The prob­lem with the current system for choos­ing pres­id­ents is that the indi­vidual compon­ents fail to fit together. The primary campaign period has become virtu­ally endless, with candid­ate announce­ments often coming nearly two years before the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. But then, because of the clus­ter­ing of the primar­ies, a de facto nominee can be chosen in a month, as was the case with Biden in 2020. The initial hopes of reformers that debates would elev­ate the tenor of pres­id­en­tial polit­ics have long ago been drowned in a sea of prac­ticed sound bites and evan­es­cent gotcha moments. And almost no one could have imagined that pre-nomin­a­tion debates would become a profit center for cable TV networks.

In this era of the perman­ent campaign, Repub­lic­ans with White House ambi­tions have already moved on to 2024 regard­less of whether Donald Trump runs again, with would-be GOP nomin­ees making explor­at­ory treks to Iowa and New Hamp­shire. Demo­crats, in contrast, are frozen by the assump­tion that Joe Biden or Kamala Harris will be their 2024 nomineebut early indic­a­tions suggest that the party may jettison the Iowa caucuses.

Despite this initial skir­mish­ing on the Repub­lican side, noth­ing about the 2024 race is set in stone. It will be months before the polit­ical parties and the states estab­lish the order of the primar­ies. And it will be years before any arrange­ments for the 2024 debates are made or the conven­tion sites are chosen. In short, everything about the under­ly­ing struc­ture of Campaign 2024 is still in flux, and there is time for signi­fic­ant improve­ments across the board.

A spate of debates

Pres­id­en­tial polit­ics has been afflic­ted with an infla­tion prob­lem — a glut of not-quite-seri­ous White House contenders. In 2016 the Repub­lic­ans boas­ted a near-record field of 17 candid­ates, includ­ing a real­ity TV star named Donald Trump. The Demo­crats easily topped that in 2020 with two dozen. While the defin­i­tion of “seri­ous” is to some extent in the hands of the voters, it is hard to argue that spir­itual adviser Mari­anne Willi­am­son was a plaus­ible 2020 pres­id­en­tial nominee, yet she was on stage for two Demo­cratic debates. Entre­pren­eur Andrew Yang — who later admit­ted that he had only run in 2020 to promote the idea of a guar­an­teed annual income — was a regu­lar parti­cipant in Demo­crat debates until the New Hamp­shire primary, in which he received 2.8 percent of the vote.

Before 2016 there were no prac­tical obstacles to each party’s pres­id­en­tial candid­ates appear­ing on the same stage, although stra­tegic consid­er­a­tions often played a major role in the schedul­ing of debates. The only excep­tion was the Demo­crats’ elephant­ine 17-candid­ate scrum in 1976, but there were only three pres­id­en­tial debates that year, all late in the primar­ies after the field had been narrowed by the voters.

All that changed in 2015. Confron­ted with an unpre­ced­en­tedly large field for the first GOP pres­id­en­tial debate that August, Repub­lican Party Chair­man Reince Priebus made a misguided decision. The Repub­lic­ans alloc­ated 10 slots on the main debate stage to the candid­ates who polled the best in national surveys. Six months before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, with many voters barely paying atten­tion, national polls rank­ing the candid­ates precisely were about as accur­ate as a blun­der­buss. Poll­ster Lee Mirin­goff, who over­sees the respec­ted Marist Poll, actu­ally delayed a national survey to prevent it from being used in the Repub­lican rank­ings. As he poin­ted out in a passion­ate online post­ing, “Name recog­ni­tion unduly influ­ences results of early primary horser­ace polls. Lesser known candid­ates will now front­load their efforts to try to make the cutoff. Public polls alter­ing campaign strategies? BAD!”

The Repub­lic­ans in 2015 provided a consol­a­tion prize to pres­id­en­tial candid­ates who didn’t make the polling threshold — a so-called “kids’ table” debate with other lagging contenders. These under­card debates consigned an influ­en­tial senator (Lind­sey Graham) and the runners-up in the 2008 and 2012 GOP nomin­a­tion battles (Mike Hucka­bee and Rick Santorum) to perpetual limbo.

2016 Republican presidential candidates, from left: George Pataki, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Lindsey Graham engage in a primary debate Justin Sulli­van/Getty
2016 Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial candid­ates George Pataki, Mike Hucka­bee, Rick Santorum, and Lind­sey Graham parti­cip­ate in the last primary debate of 2015.

Fail­ing to anti­cip­ate that Donald Trump would prove a major profit center for cable TV news, the Repub­lic­ans ceded almost all control of the actual primary debates to the networks that broad­cast them. That meant that everything revolved around TV ratings rather than inform­ing the voters. Candid­ates were grouped on stage based on their poll posi­tions (which meant that Trump was invari­ably center stage), the audi­ences were permit­ted to be rauc­ous, and debate answers were so short (usually one-minute responses and 30-second follow-ups) that they resembled haiku. The result was debates that would have under­mined seri­ous discus­sion of the issues even without the disrupt­ive pres­ence of Trump on stage. 

In theory, the Demo­crats in 2020 should have learned from the 2016 Repub­lican demoli­tion-derby debates. Instead, the Demo­crats, led by Chair­man Tom Perez, found new and differ­ent ways to compound the GOP’s mistakes. The Demo­crats retained polling thresholds and added another wrinkle by requir­ing candid­ates to have a certain number of indi­vidual donors. The initial require­ments for the first debates in Miami in late June 2019 were modest — either 1 percent support in the polls or 65,000 indi­vidual donors. To their credit, the Demo­crats elim­in­ated the kids’ table and began the campaign season with two 10-person debates on back-to-back nights, with the candid­ates grouped by lot rather than by poll numbers.

But the Demo­crats soon aban­doned the notion of fair­ness for a format designed to create more dramatic tele­vi­sion. The Septem­ber 12, 2019, debate in Hous­ton required parti­cipants to both score 2 percent in national polls and have a minimum of 130,000 donors. Desper­ate candid­ates, worried about making the threshold, actu­ally spent as much as $60 in online advert­ising to attract each $1 donor. Rather than encour­aging grass­roots fundrais­ing, this arbit­rary require­ment perver­ted campaign strategy and spend­ing decisions. The toughened criteria for the Septem­ber debate played a major role in prompt­ing New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee, and former Color­ado governor John Hick­en­looper to drop out of the race in August. Among the active candid­ates perman­ently exiled from the debate stage begin­ning in Hous­ton were Color­ado Sen. Michael Bennet and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. And before 2019 was over, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Julián Castro, a former Obama admin­is­tra­tion cabinet secret­ary, were also barred from debates by fail­ing to meet ever-rising polling and donor thresholds.

Until recently, the voters in early states such as Iowa and New Hamp­shire winnowed the field of pres­id­en­tial candid­ates. But the arbit­rary debate rules in both parties of late have meant that senat­ors and governors whose campaigns fail to catch fire imme­di­ately are either forced to drop out prema­turely or rendered semi-invis­ible by their absence from the tele­vised extra­vag­an­zas.

Look­ing ahead to the 2024 and 2028 nomin­a­tion fights, there must be a better way to organ­ize primary debates. Voters need help in sort­ing out large fields of candid­ates who, because they are in the same party, often tend to agree on most policy issues. Primary debates, for all their inher­ent flaws, remain the easi­est way for voters to develop nuanced views of the candid­ates.

Solu­tions: A new way to debate

As a start­ing point for the future, the polit­ical parties should real­ize that they do not have to cede control to the networks in order to induce them to broad­cast the debates. With intense viewer interest in polit­ics, TV networks presum­ably would continue to vie to host the debates even if the polit­ical parties deman­ded that they tone down the atmo­sphere and permit longer answers from the candid­ates.

The polit­ical parties could exper­i­ment with host­ing debates them­selves and letting all networks freely cover them as news events. That would allow some debates to be limited to one or two topics rather than bounce from issue to issue in pogo-stick fash­ion. Away from the control of the networks, occa­sional debates might also feature ques­tion­ing from policy experts or academ­ics like polit­ical scient­ists and histor­i­ans. The prob­lem with journ­al­istic panels is that too often the ques­tions are designed to create short-term contro­versy rather than anything substant­ive. And while report­ers are some­times adept at forcing candid­ates out of their comfort zones, town meet­ing-style debates with voters quizz­ing the contenders usually produce prefab­ric­ated answers lifted from stump speeches.

There also needs to be a better system to separ­ate out candid­ates who are seri­ously running for the White House from those who are trying to boost their speak­ing fees, promote a single cause, or are off on inex­plic­able ego trips. As both parties discovered in 2016 and 2020, this can be a daunt­ing task. One approach would be to guar­an­tee a spot on the debate stage to anyone who has won a statewide elec­tion in the prior decade. Candid­ates who do not fit into this category (and this would have included both Trump in 2016 and former mayor Pete Butti­gieg last year, among others) could be required to submit a certain number of online peti­tion signa­tures or meet a similar condi­tion to demon­strate support.

A better notion, though, would be for each party to desig­nate a blue-ribbon group (maybe a diverse set of former elec­ted offi­cials and retired state chairs) to vet the candid­ates at the begin­ning of the race for seri­ous­ness and plaus­ib­il­ity. Yes, this sounds heavy-handed and exclu­sion­ary. But before the 1970s, polit­ical parties did this in every campaign year, quietly shun­ning candid­ates who were, say, secret alco­hol­ics or other­wise known to be unre­li­able. These days, although the media tries, no one is vetting the candid­ates, as the nomin­a­tion of Trump in 2016 demon­strated. Such a blue-ribbon group — espe­cially if it were commit­ted to fair­ness and a reas­on­able amount of inclu­sion — would restore a small role to the polit­ical parties in choos­ing the pres­id­en­tial candid­ate who would run under their banners.

Who’s on first?

Noth­ing about the early 2020 Demo­cratic caucuses and primar­ies followed a predict­able pattern — aside from Iowa again being the state that could­n’t count straight.

For the second time in eight years, the overhyped Iowa caucuses failed to deliver a timely verdict. In fact, the Iowa Demo­cratic Party was unable to release any returns on caucus night, Febru­ary 3, because of the melt­down of its cell phone app. Pete Butti­gieg was belatedly declared the winner three days later in a seem­ingly hair’s-breadth victory over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But those results were in dispute all through Febru­ary — and the Asso­ci­ated Press, to the end, refused to crown a winner because of “concerns about whether the results as repor­ted by the party are fully accur­ate.”

The supposed logic for begin­ning the nomin­a­tion fight in four small states (Iowa, New Hamp­shire, Nevada, and South Caro­lina) is that this jerry-built system allows voters to winnow the field. The tradi­tional refrain, repeated by gener­a­tions of polit­ical report­ers, has been “There are only three tick­ets out of Iowa.”

But in 2020, all of the five lead­ing Demo­cratic contenders — Biden, Sanders, Butti­gieg, Sen. Eliza­beth Warren of Massachu­setts, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — stayed in the race until after the South Caro­lina primary. So did the two self-fund­ing, late-entry candid­ates, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg and hedge fund billion­aire Tom Steyer.

No candid­ate in modern history has ever followed anything like Biden’s traject­ory to the nomin­a­tion. When the 2020 Iowa caucus choices were finally tabu­lated, Biden ran an embar­rass­ing fourth, with initial support from only 15 percent of Iowa Demo­crats. In 2004, after an analog­ous fourth-place Iowa finish, Rep. Dick Geph­ardt of Missouri dropped out of the race. Four years later, after limp­ing home close to the bottom of the pack in Iowa, a veteran senator named Biden aban­doned his White House dreams as he told support­ers, “I feel no regret.”

But 2020 was a differ­ent story. Biden moved on to New Hamp­shire, where he finished a woeful fifth. The former vice pres­id­ent then stumbled into Nevada, where Sanders beat him by roughly a two-to-one margin in the caucuses. But then Biden’s land­slide victory in the South Caro­lina primary with nearly 50 percent of the vote propelled him to the nomin­a­tion and the pres­id­ency.

Joe Biden delivers remarks at South Carolina primary night election event JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty
Joe Biden deliv­ers remarks at a primary night elec­tion event in 2020 in Columbia, South Caro­lina.

Solu­tions: Kill the caucus

So, after that roller-coaster ride, what are the lessons for the future from the early 2020 deleg­ate contests?

The ineptitude of the Iowa Demo­crats destroyed the last shreds of a justi­fic­a­tion for select­ing deleg­ates in a caucus rather than a primary. Polit­ical parties — which run caucuses inde­pend­ent of state elec­tion offi­cials — simply do not have the skills to reli­ably count ballots in a contested race. Iowa Repub­lic­ans demon­strated this fail­ing in 2012 when they initially declared former Massachu­setts governor Mitt Romney (and ulti­mate nominee) the winner before revers­ing field two weeks later and award­ing the crown to former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. And back in the 1988 caucuses, Iowa Demo­crats deferred to network projec­tions and stopped count­ing with roughly 750 precincts untal­lied.

More import­ant, caucuses are inequit­able because they are invari­ably low-turnout events. Tradi­tion­ally, Iowans in both parties had to meet in person on a Monday even­ing in the depth of winter to parti­cip­ate in the caucuses. While the rules were always looser in Nevada, the caucuses did require show­ing up in person. In 2020 the Demo­crats, to their credit, tried to make it easier for voters in Iowa and Nevada to caucus. Iowa held virtual online caucuses in some group settings for Demo­crats who worked nights, tempor­ar­ily resided out of state, or lived in group homes for the elderly. Nevada made provi­sions for early voting. But neither of these attemp­ted reforms did much to increase turnout.

In 2020 about 70 percent of the New Hamp­shire voters who would ulti­mately back Biden in Novem­ber cast ballots in the Demo­cratic primary. The South Caro­lina primary attrac­ted roughly half of the even­tual general-elec­tion Biden voters. In contrast, despite the national atten­tion lavished on Iowa, only about 175,000 Demo­crats parti­cip­ated in the open­ing-gun caucuses, which was less than one-fourth of the votes the Demo­cratic ticket would receive from Iowa voters nine months later. The numbers from the Nevada caucuses were worse: just a paltry one-seventh of the state’s voters who opted for Biden in Novem­ber bothered to caucus.

Caucuses were already an endangered species for the Demo­crats in 2020, with only two other states (North Dakota and Wyom­ing) hold­ing them. But even if the hold­out states switched to primar­ies, there would still be the ques­tion of which states get to go first. Over the years, both parties have protec­ted a small group of early states — most recently Iowa, New Hamp­shire, Nevada, and South Caro­lina — from encroach­ment by other states jump­ing the gun. In 2008 Michigan and Flor­ida viol­ated Demo­cratic Party rules by moving their primar­ies into the protec­ted zone for early states. As a result, no major candid­ate campaigned in either outlaw primary — and the Demo­cratic Party’s rules commit­tee took away half their deleg­ates.

From time to time, propos­als have been floated to replace the indi­vidual state deleg­ate contests with a national primary or a series of regional primar­ies. The most potent argu­ment against these reform­ist notions is the example of the 2020 pres­id­en­tial campaign of Mike Bloomberg, who squandered a stag­ger­ing $1 billion in his quest for the Demo­cratic nomin­a­tion. Tom Steyer spent more than $300 million on his own pres­id­en­tial ambi­tions. A national primary, or even a sequence of regional ones, would require some­thing close to nine-digit spend­ing on TV advert­ising for a little-known candid­ate to compete. Under this kind of system, there would be almost no way for a long-shot candid­ate (aside from self-funders) to break through based on personal campaign­ing and afford­able TV ads in one or two early states.

True, no contender has replic­ated Jimmy Carter’s 1976 feat in going from “Jimmy who?” to the nomin­a­tion and the White House. But center­ing early campaign­ing on a hand­ful of small states has allowed under­dog candid­ates like Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2000 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 to emerge as seri­ous altern­at­ives to the high-flying front-runners. And then there’s Rick Santorum. While his 2012 pres­id­en­tial race is mostly forgot­ten, he came surpris­ingly close to knock­ing off Mitt Romney for the GOP nomin­a­tion.

There is an inher­ent logic to start­ing the pres­id­en­tial race with primar­ies (not caucuses) in four smal­ler states in differ­ent regions of the coun­try. The neces­sity of personal campaign­ing undoubtedly helps the candid­ates under­stand the sprawl­ing nation they are hoping to govern. And, frankly, the essence of demo­cracy lies in a candid­ate like Joe Biden spend­ing 90 minutes speak­ing to and patiently answer­ing ques­tions from 125 Iowa Demo­crats in a high school cafet­eria in Knoxville (popu­la­tion: 7,595) just 14 months before he was inaug­ur­ated as pres­id­ent.

The conun­drum, of course, is which four smal­ler states go first? Because by order­ing the primar­ies, all states are equal, but some states are more equal than others.

The first two Demo­cratic deleg­ate contests in 2020 were rightly criti­cized for their lack of diversity; Iowa and New Hamp­shire are among the 10 states with a white popu­la­tion of more than 90 percent. In contrast, 56 percent of South Caro­lina Demo­cratic primary voters were Black, accord­ing to exit polls. And despite their compar­at­ively low turnout, the Nevada caucuses were reas­on­ably diverse, with 17 percent of the parti­cip­at­ing Demo­crats Hispanic and another 11 percent Black, again accord­ing to exit polls. (Diversity is less of a consid­er­a­tion on the Repub­lican side since the party’s base is dispro­por­tion­ately white.)

There is a strong case for retain­ing New Hamp­shire and South Caro­lina at the front of the pack.

In New Hamp­shire’s favor is a rate of polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion and primary turnout that is off the charts and a highly educated, polit­ic­ally inde­pend­ent popu­la­tion that is emblem­atic of the North­east. Making South Caro­lina the second primary would enhance diversity, espe­cially since candid­ates tradi­tion­ally campaign by hopscotch­ing back and forth between the first two states on the calen­dar.

Prior to the Trump era in the GOP, New Hamp­shire and South Caro­lina together captured a broad swath of Repub­lican senti­ment. New Hamp­shire boas­ted a quirky inde­pend­ent streak that embraced outsider candid­ates ranging from Pat Buchanan to John McCain. South Caro­lina, in contrast, was the state where the GOP estab­lish­ment regrouped, which is why its primary was pivotal in secur­ing the nomin­a­tion for Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.

There are also real-world consid­er­a­tions buttress­ing the special roles of New Hamp­shire and South Caro­lina. An idio­syn­cratic state law gives the New Hamp­shire secret­ary of state the unilat­eral power to move the primary to a date as early as neces­sary (even into the odd-numbered year) “to protect the tradi­tion of the . . . first-in-the-nation pres­id­en­tial primary.” With Biden in the White House and former South Caro­lina Senate candid­ate Jaime Harrison now chair­ing the Demo­cratic National Commit­tee, it is almost impossible to envi­sion another south­ern state repla­cing South Caro­lina on the primary calen­dar.

The unin­spir­ing track records of the Iowa and Nevada caucuses offer a compel­ling argu­ment to award the third and fourth posi­tions on the calen­dar to new states. As a substi­tute for Iowa, Kansas offers similar rural demo­graph­ics and an agri­cul­tural pedi­gree. Kansas, in fact, aside from its over­whelm­ingly white popu­la­tion, is surpris­ingly close to provid­ing a cross section of the nation in terms of median age, income, and educa­tion. Another appeal­ing notion might be to replace Iowa with Wiscon­sin, a good proxy for the indus­trial Midw­est. With no party regis­tra­tion in Wiscon­sin, an early pres­id­en­tial primary would allow both parties to test the appeal of its candid­ates to inde­pend­ent voters in one of the great 21st-century battle­ground states.

Nevada received its prime place on the polit­ical calen­dar largely because of former Senate major­ity leader Harry Reid’s clout within the Demo­cratic Party. But while Nevada has one of the highest percent­ages of Hispanic voters in the coun­try, the domin­ance of Las Vegas and casi­nos makes the state atyp­ical. As a regional altern­at­ive, award the final spot on the early calen­dar to Arizona (a swing state like Nevada), Color­ado, or New Mexico.

But even if the order of the 2024 primar­ies were New Hamp­shire, South Caro­lina, Wiscon­sin, and Arizona, it would not solve all the prob­lems with the primary calen­dar.

The chaos of clustering

Minutes after the South Caro­lina primary polls closed at 7 p.m. on Febru­ary 29, 2020, the TV networks declared Joe Biden the over­whelm­ing winner. The next morn­ing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd began the broad­cast by declar­ing, “Joe Biden gets the land­slide victory he needed in South Caro­lina.” By the end of the day, Pete Butti­gieg — the Iowa winner who finished a close second in New Hamp­shire — had dropped out of the race, telling support­ers that it was “the right thing to do when we looked at the math.” The next day, Amy Klobuchar ended her campaign by endors­ing Biden at a Dallas rally where Butti­gieg also backed the former vice pres­id­ent.

The race for the Demo­cratic nomin­a­tion had been upen­ded in 48 hours in one of the biggest turn­abouts in modern polit­ical history. And then on March 3 — aka Super Tues­day — 14 states, includ­ing Cali­for­nia and Texas, held pres­id­en­tial primar­ies. A stag­ger­ing 15.7 million votes were cast on a single day, as Biden won 10 of 14 contests. Even though they had already dropped out, Butti­gieg and Klobuchar received almost 800,000 votes combined, with most of them presum­ably coming from absentee and early ballot­ing.

Delib­er­a­tion should be an integ­ral part of demo­cracy. Primar­ies, in partic­u­lar, should offer voters time to reflect on their choices, since the differ­ences among candid­ates in the same party tend to be nuanced. But the clus­ter­ing of 14 primar­ies on the same day was a stam­pede rather than an oppor­tun­ity for considered judg­ment. (Let me stress that this is a comment­ary on the process rather than the outcome.)

The glut of primar­ies on March 3 was inev­it­able once the Demo­crats followed tradi­tion and issued a rule reserving Febru­ary 2020 for the four desig­nated early states. As a result, state legis­latures gave way to the irres­ist­ible impulse to make sure that their states mattered in nomin­at­ing a pres­id­ent by hold­ing primar­ies on the first permiss­ible Tues­day. In 10 of the 14 Super Tues­day states, primar­ies for other offices were held at a later date.

Joe Biden smiles at a crowd from a podium, while Jill Biden and Valerie Biden applaud behind him David McNew/Getty
Joe Biden attends a Super Tues­day event in Los Angeles as part of the 2020 Demo­cratic primary with his wife Jill Biden and sister Valerie Biden.

The March 3 rush offered a case study in the law of unin­ten­ded consequences — the clus­ter­ing became so intense that no state, not even Cali­for­nia, mattered that much. The risk of such a massive Super Tues­day is that it becomes made-to-order for a super-rich self-funder like Mike Bloomberg. He was the only 2020 candid­ate with the resources to advert­ise heav­ily in all 14 Super Tues­day states. Had Eliza­beth Warren not memor­ably evis­cer­ated him in a Febru­ary 19 debate in Las Vegas, it is conceiv­able that Bloomberg could have bought his way into a deleg­ate lead on March 3.

Solu­tions: Push back and break up Super Tues­day

This is not a new prob­lem. Both the Demo­crats and the Repub­lic­ans have been grap­pling with the clus­ter­ing of the primar­ies since the 1980s. But it has been hard enough for the national parties to exert their limited powers to guar­an­tee a protec­ted period for the four early states. Threats from national party headquar­ters have limited impact when the power to set the dates for pres­id­en­tial primar­ies rests entirely with state legis­latures.

Instead of a heavy-handed approach, the national parties have offered vari­ous bland­ish­ments over the years to states in an effort to space out their pres­id­en­tial primar­ies. The carrots have ranged from award­ing bonus deleg­ates to states that don’t jump the gun to the Repub­lic­ans in 2016 permit­ting states to hold winner-take-all primar­ies begin­ning in mid-March. But noth­ing has worked. The bonus deleg­ates have been mostly ignored as too paltry a prize, and the 2016 GOP winner-take-all primar­ies (which are barred under Demo­cratic Party rules) had the boom­er­ang result of hasten­ing a rush to judg­ment without giving voters enough time to assess the candid­ates.

Oddly enough, the best example of states deriv­ing tangible bene­fits from delay­ing their primar­ies occurred by acci­dent. In 2008 North Caro­lina and Indi­ana were the largest of the seven states that waited until after May 1 to select their deleg­ates. As it happened, Barack Obama and Hillary Clin­ton were still joust­ing for the nomin­a­tion that spring, and the two popu­lar Demo­crats lavished two weeks of intense campaign­ing on North Caro­lina and Indi­ana before their May 3 primar­ies. This burst of atten­tion played a major role in boost­ing Demo­cratic organ­iz­ing in both states. And, partly as a result, Obama carried both states in Novem­ber 2008 — the only time in this century that either North Caro­lina or Indi­ana has gone Demo­cratic.

There is, of course, no way to insti­tu­tion­al­ize a protrac­ted nomin­a­tion battle. But it might help to space out the primary calen­dar if polit­ical parties were not so overtly fear­ful of having a deleg­ate race stretch into June. In years past, it seemed rational for party lead­ers to be obsessed with anoint­ing a de facto nominee in March or early April. The logic was that an early choice would allow the candid­ate to get a head start on fundrais­ing and lessen the chances of last­ing interne­cine feuds. But in this era of intense partis­an­ship, rais­ing money is no longer a daunt­ing chal­lenge (about $4 billion was spent on the 2020 pres­id­en­tial race, includ­ing funds from super PACs and hidden “dark money.”) And a strong argu­ment can be made that the made-for-tele­vi­sion drama of a hard-fought battle for the nomin­a­tion can aid a polit­ical party in Novem­ber, espe­cially since in these partisan days it is much easier to forge party unity for the fall campaign.

Polit­ical parties do possess the power to do one import­ant thing to add a note of delib­er­a­tion to the primar­ies: to mandate a pause of at least a week between the last of the four early primar­ies and the inev­it­able Super Tues­day. In 2020 that would have given Demo­cratic voters a chance to digest the South Caro­lina results, the turn­about in Biden’s polit­ical prospects, and the endorse­ment of the former vice pres­id­ent by Butti­gieg and Klobuchar. Push­ing back Super Tues­day would also lessen the chances that any early or absentee voter would have cast a wasted ballot for a candid­ate who dropped out of the race.

But in the end, the front-load­ing of the primary calen­dar directly flows from another sea change in polit­ics — the end of conven­tions as decision-making bodies. If candid­ates are no longer scrap­ping to the end for deleg­ates to take to the conven­tion, then May and June primar­ies in most campaign years will merely offer voters the mean­ing­less oppor­tun­ity to ratify a choice that has already been made.

Conventional wisdom

The pandemic destroyed the last illu­sions that a polit­ical conven­tion is anything more than free tele­vi­sion advert­ising dressed up as a news event. Instead of thou­sands of deleg­ates (and seem­ingly as many report­ers) flock­ing to Char­lotte for the Repub­lic­ans and Milwau­kee for the Demo­crats, both parties, out of neces­sity, went mostly virtual in 2020. About the only memor­able live back­drops during the conven­tions were Joe Biden greet­ing support­ers in their honk­ing cars in a Wilm­ing­ton park­ing lot after his conven­tion address and Donald Trump, with dubi­ous legal­ity and worse taste, command­eer­ing the White House for his accept­ance speech.

Joe Biden is shown on a screen delivering a speech to a crowd of people and cars Alex Wong/Getty
People gather to listen to Joe Biden accept the 2020 Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial nomin­a­tion at a park­ing lot outside the Chase Center in Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware.

The broad­cast TV networks, bowing to the remnants of civil oblig­a­tion, devoted an hour of prime­time for four straight nights to each conven­tion, from 10 to 11 p.m. East­ern. Cable TV and PBS ran the full array of even­ing sessions, but even this exten­ded cover­age had its built-in limit­a­tions. There were no deleg­ates to inter­view, no contro­ver­sies, and scant tradi­tional content. The Repub­lican, reflect­ing Trump’s scorn for substance, even dispensed with a party plat­form. The Demo­cratic conven­tion was aptly likened by a Syra­cuse Univer­sity media scholar, Robert Thompson, to “a 1970s vari­ety show.”

The irony is that just six months earlier, in Febru­ary 2020, it seemed like every­one in polit­ics was predict­ing a “contested conven­tion” for the Demo­crats in Milwau­kee. With no candid­ate domin­at­ing the race after Iowa and New Hamp­shire, pundits and politicos were eagerly imagin­ing scen­arios under which the Demo­cratic nominee would be selec­ted on the conven­tion floor for the first time since 1952. Nate Silver’s influ­en­tial stat­ist­ics-based website, FiveThirtyEight, put the odds at 41 percent that voters in the primar­ies would not award a major­ity of deleg­ates to any Demo­cratic contender.

Of course, there is virtu­ally no one left in polit­ics or journ­al­ism with any exper­i­ence with a conven­tion as an actual decision-making body. The most recent floor battles for the nomin­a­tion were Ronald Reagan’s hard-fought chal­lenge to incum­bent Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ted Kennedy’s last-ditch bid to dethrone incum­bent Jimmy Carter in 1980. Back in those days, there was no cable news, let alone smart­phones, and no abil­ity for anyone other than a network reporter to show video. In short, it seems almost as long ago as 1924, when it took the Demo­crats 103 ballots in steam­ing heat at New York’s old Madison Square Garden to pick a nominee.

Senator Ted Kennedy shakes President Jimmy Carter's hand Bettmann/Getty
Pres­id­ent Jimmy Carter and Sen. Edward Kennedy shake hands at the conclu­sion of the 1980 Demo­cratic National Conven­tion in New York City. Kennedy, who had been the pres­id­ent’s rival in the primary, waited at his hotel during Carter’s accept­ance speech before driv­ing to Madison Square Garden to appear beside Carter in a gesture of party unity.

Had Covid-19 not inter­vened, 4,750 Demo­cratic deleg­ates would have atten­ded the Milwau­kee conven­tion. It is almost impossible to imagine the bedlam if such an unwieldy group had been required to make a bind­ing decision on the pres­id­en­tial nominee.

Despite the fantas­ies of polit­ical junkies, voters have displayed mixed reac­tions to the idea of allow­ing conven­tion deleg­ates to pick a nominee who had not domin­ated the primar­ies. In the spring of 2016, when it appeared that Trump would fall short of winning a major­ity of GOP deleg­ates before the conven­tion, poll­sters asked Repub­lican voters how the nominee should be selec­ted. Typical was an April 2016 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll find­ing that 62 percent of Repub­lic­ans believed that the candid­ate with the most primary votes (even if it were less than a major­ity) should prevail at the conven­tion. In late Febru­ary 2020, before the South Caro­lina primary, Fox News polled Demo­cratic voters, asking an analog­ous ques­tion about what should happen if no candid­ate were to corral a major­ity of deleg­ates. By a margin of 50 to 38 percent, Demo­crats said they preferred to have the deleg­ates choose the nominee rather than auto­mat­ic­ally defer­ring to the candid­ate with the most support in the primar­ies.

Complic­at­ing everything is the hostil­ity of many Demo­cratic activ­ists to the exist­ence of super­deleg­ates, who are the nearly 800 elec­ted and party offi­cials who are auto­mat­ic­ally selec­ted without having to endorse a pres­id­en­tial candid­ate in a primary. At first glance, it seems logical that these super­deleg­ates — many of whom will run on a ticket with the pres­id­en­tial nominee — are entitled to a signi­fic­ant role since they have so much more at stake than a typical Demo­cratic voter. But in recent years, Bernie Sander­s’s support­ers regarded super­deleg­ates as an ille­git­im­ate mech­an­ism for the party estab­lish­ment to dictate the nominee. As a result of the continu­ing contro­versy, a comprom­ise was reached before the 2020 primar­ies, giving super­deleg­ates decision-making votes only on a putat­ive second ballot at the conven­tion.

The endless Demo­cratic wrangling over super­deleg­ates — which also occurred during the Obama–Clin­ton nomin­a­tion struggle in 2008 — serves as an indic­ator of the contro­versy that would likely surround a nominee emer­ging from a contested conven­tion. Demo­cratic Party rules since 1980 have allowed deleg­ates to vote their conscience (Rule 13-J in 2020) rather than robot­ic­ally follow the result of the primar­ies in which they were selec­ted. But it does­n’t take much to envi­sion the uproar if a pivotal group of deleg­ates switched candid­ates on the conven­tion floor under the “conscience” rule.

Solu­tions: All pageant, no power

Since Biden would have been the consensus Demo­cratic nominee even without the pandemic, it may seem odd to get caught up in might-have-beens about a contested conven­tion. But sooner or later, a polit­ical conven­tion is going to be trans­formed from a four-day pep rally into a decision-making body that may well choose the next pres­id­ent of the United States.

Elaine Kamarck of the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion offers a plaus­ible scen­ario: What if John Edwards had won a major­ity of the deleg­ates in the 2008 Demo­cratic primar­ies and, on the eve of the conven­tion, the sex scan­dal that destroyed his polit­ical career hit the news? Because the deleg­ates could “vote their conscience,” there was no chance that the Demo­crats would have gone forward in suicidal fash­ion with Edwards as the nominee. Another possib­il­ity would be a contro­ver­sial or badly vetted vice pres­id­ent nominee unveiled at the last moment. (As a reporter, I covered both the contro­versy over the real estate deal­ings of VP candid­ate Geraldine Ferraro’s husband in 1984 and the shock at the 1988 GOP conven­tion in New Orleans at the surprise selec­tion of Dan Quayle for the number two spot).

Noth­ing equips a 21st century conven­tion to make these kinds of in-emer­gency-break-glass decisions about the pres­id­en­tial ticket. The Demo­crats now allot a ludicrous number of conven­tion deleg­ates plus altern­ates. In contrast, the 1960 Los Angeles conven­tion that nomin­ated John Kennedy had fewer than one-third as many deleg­ates as the 4,750 chosen in 2020. Imagine trying to get recog­nized for a parlia­ment­ary point of order from the conven­tion floor when that “floor” extends halfway up the seat­ing in a basket­ball arena.

Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford shake hands at a podium Bettmann/Getty
A defeated Gov. Ronald Reagan wishes Pres­id­ent Ford well in his campaign for the pres­id­ency at the end of the 1976 GOP conven­tion in Kansas City.

There is a tempt­ing argu­ment to offi­cially make conven­tions what they have become: a four-day tele­vised celeb­ra­tion of the party’s pres­id­en­tial ticket. Decision-making power in the rare cases of a dead­lock or a scan­dal would rest else­where — say, with the equi­val­ent of Demo­cratic super­deleg­ates. This is not as outland­ish as it may sound since the Demo­cratic and Repub­lican national commit­tees currently have the power to choose a replace­ment candid­ate if there is a vacancy on the ticket after the conven­tion has concluded. In 1972 it was the Demo­cratic National Commit­tee that selec­ted Sergeant Shriver to replace Tom Eagleton as George McGov­ern’s running mate follow­ing revel­a­tions about Eagleton’s mental health.

If we have learned anything from the tumul­tu­ous 2020 polit­ical season, it is that any weak­ness in the system under which we nomin­ate and elect pres­id­ents can be exploited. That is why — even though I long to witness the drama of a second ballot for pres­id­ent — I have sadly concluded that 21st-century conven­tions should be all pageant and no power.

•  •  •

 

The solu­tions to so many prob­lems hobbling Amer­ican demo­cracy require over­com­ing obstruc­tion in the Senate and rolling back state laws that inter­fere with voting and vote count­ing. But the only legis­la­tion involved in the nomin­a­tion of pres­id­en­tial candid­ates are the state laws setting the primary dates. That means that the only real bulwarks stand­ing in the way of prac­tical reforms to the nomin­a­tion system are tradi­tion, the iner­tia of the polit­ical parties, and the profit-and-loss ledgers of cable news networks.

It would not take much to struc­ture pres­id­en­tial debates around fair­ness and voter educa­tion rather than TV ratings. Both parties have the power to change their rules in the belated recog­ni­tion that polit­ical conven­tions as decision-making bodies are polit­ical arti­facts in the 2020s. Even the order of the early deleg­ate contests can mostly be set by the national commit­tees of both parties, espe­cially since, as 2008 indic­ated, candid­ates would be reluct­ant to campaign in states that viol­ate party rules by jump­ing the gun. Only the prob­lem of the clus­ter­ing of primar­ies on a Super Tues­day would require legis­lat­ive action by multiple states.

There is, of course, no perfect way to nomin­ate pres­id­en­tial candid­ates. But just because our current method of nomin­at­ing pres­id­ents evolved almost by acci­dent is no excuse for inac­tion as the 2024 races begin to be glimpsed on the far hori­zon. Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial contenders may start declar­ing their candid­a­cies in as little as 16 months. That is why the time to make changes in the system is now, before any alter­a­tions in the primary calen­dar and the rules for debates risk being viewed as boost­ing some candid­ates and hinder­ing others.

At a time of right­ful fear over the future of Amer­ican demo­cracy, it would be bracing to solve over the next year or two fixable prob­lems in how the nation nomin­ates would-be pres­id­ents.