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The Time to Fix Presidential Primaries is Now, Not in 2020. Here’s How.

At The Washington Post, Walter Shapiro argues that both parties’ presidential nomination systems are ripe for reform.

April 27, 2017

Cross-posted from The Washington Post. The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

When Americans cast their 2016 presidential ballots, the collective emotion could be summarized as: “How did we get this dismal choice?” Not since 1956 had there been such profound dissatisfaction with how candidates were nominated for president. The problem was not only the unpopularity of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but also widespread accusations of unfairness that accompanied the nomination fights in both parties. Bernie Sanders was incensed about “closed” Democrats-only primaries that disenfranchised some of his supporters, while Trump yelled “rigged” whenever something did not go his way, such as the decision by Colorado Republicans to eliminate a nonbinding candidate preference poll to accompany the state’s caucuses.

Now amid the pyrotechnics of Trump’s presidency, the 2016 primary season seems as long ago as the Punic Wars. The arguments over the nomination process that once animated Sanders supporters and never-Trump Republicans are now lost in the mists of history. The next time most voters will think about the system for nominating presidents is in 2020 when once again some candidate or another will be claiming that the game is rigged.

But 2020 will be far too late. The time to rethink the presidential nominating system is now, when it’s too early to calculate how jiggering with matters like the primary calendar would affect specific candidates. The Democratic Party’s Unity Commission — an internal reform effort approved at the 2016 convention to appease Sanders’s backers — will soon begin work on a series of recommendations for rules changes due at the end of the year. Meanwhile, California is already threatening to move up its 2020 primary for both parties to a privileged position right after Iowa and New Hampshire.

The issue here is not whom the parties will select, but rather how such candidates should be chosen. As a political columnist who has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns, I have been wondering if we could find better and fairer ways to nominate presidential candidates for decades. And by now, I am far more interested in what might be attainable in 2020 or 2024 than I am in devising an ideal system that never moves beyond armchair theory. With that goal in mind, here are four recommendations for picking future presidential nominees that reflect some of the complaints that candidates and voters in both parties have raised in recent years. (A longer version of these proposals is in a new report I wrote for the Brennan Center for Justice.)

1.      Eliminate caucuses and the clustering of primaries on “Super Tuesdays”

Most debates over the calendar used to nominate presidents begin and end with the privileged position of Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. I strongly believe in the principle that small states should go first, because it represents the only way that a little-known contender (like Sanders at the beginning of 2016 or Rick Santorum in 2012) can get a fair shake. But it is impossible to logically defend low-turnout caucuses like Iowa’s, which disenfranchise voters who work nights or have child-care problems. The simple solution would be to turn the Iowa caucuses into a primary and have it come right after New Hampshire. Or, if necessary, schedule Iowa and New Hampshire for the same day.

As a reporter who celebrated New Year’s Eve 2007–2008 in Des Moines, I have a fervent belief that sanity argues for beginning the primaries in early February rather than January. There should also be a protected position in February for South Carolina (65 percent of voters in its 2016 Democratic primary were nonwhite) and a Western state with a large Latino population.

Ideally, there would be only one or two contests per week, which would give voters a chance to reflect on the results from the prior primaries and the natural winnowing of the field.  In 2016, for example, nine states held presidential primaries in both parties on March 1. The more primaries that are held on a single day, the harder it becomes for the voters to make a reflective decision. Primaries are inherently confusing to voters, because all the candidates are in the same party and often agree on many policies. That is why a sane pace is important, so voters are not excessively influenced by a fleeting news development or the aftereffects of some rehearsed debate line. Extreme clustering rewards candidates with vast resources, since they can afford to advertise heavily in multiple states at the same time. This was the disadvantage that both Santorum and Newt Gingrich faced against Mitt Romney in 2012.

Every inducement at the disposal of the parties (especially bonus delegates and permission to hold winner-take-all contests) should be employed to space out the primaries in a reasonable fashion from February until late May or early June. Up to now, parties only have tried to penalize states that vie with Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina early on the calendar.

2.     Change how delegates are awarded

Democrats have a phobia against winner-take-all primaries that dates back to mostly forgotten floor fights at the 1968 convention and fears in 1972 that George Wallace could win the nomination. As a result, the party boasts an almost religious devotion to selecting convention delegates by proportional representation by congressional districts. Without the same tempestuous history (before 2016), the Republicans lack similar inhibitions about winner-take-all primaries.

One of the oddities of the current system is that both parties favor electing delegates by congressional districts rather than statewide. Democrats mandate this approach, with 75 percent of pledged delegates elected by district; Republicans have backed into it by leaving decisions on how to allocate delegates to individual states.

As a matter of principle, awarding delegates by congressional district runs counter to the way we actually elect presidents. In the electoral college, 48 out of 50 states allocate electors on a statewide winner-take-all basis.

The system also is indefensible on practical grounds. In last year’s April 19 New York Republican primary, for example, three delegates were awarded to the winner of each of the state’s 27 congressional districts. What that meant is that 1,223 GOP voters in New York’s heavily Democratic 15th District (the Bronx) selected three delegates — as did the 76,126 Republicans who cast ballots in the 27th District (the Buffalo and Rochester suburbs). While Trump swept all of New York (aside from his home borough of Manhattan, which went narrowly for John Kasich), it is hard to justify the GOP giving such delegate weight to landslide Democratic districts.

Convention delegates should be allocated statewide in all cases. To prevent splintering of the vote, implement a 15 percent statewide threshold to win delegates, which is analogous to current Democratic rules. Similarly, it is difficult to justify Democrats’ traditional resistance to winner-take-all primaries. Deployed late enough in the political season, winner-take-all-contests can give voters a meaningful chance to say, “wait a second,” as the party may be rushing to anoint a badly flawed nominee. As both Sanders in 2016 and Clinton in 2008 learned, it is near impossible for a trailing Democrat to catch up because of the party’s extreme form of proportional representation.

3.     Have GOP superdelegates and a “conscience clause”

Unelected and unpledged superdelegates, which Democrats created before the 1984 convention, are probably the most unpopular aspect of the presidential nomination system. But these superdelegates are also the major reason Democrats would never have nominated as disruptive a presidential candidate as Donald Trump.

The logic behind the invention of superdelegates was simple and persuasive — elected and party officials deserve a seat at the table. Perhaps Democrats have been too generous in making all 447 members of the Democratic National Committee automatic delegates, along with Democratic governors and members of Congress. But from the beginning, superdelegates have been roughly 15 percent of the total delegates at a Democratic convention.

Superdelegates should be understood as an “in emergency break glass” mechanism. Their votes will rarely be decisive (superdelegates have always been reluctant to intervene in races with two acceptable candidates, like 2008 with Barack Obama and Clinton), but when they are, they could save the party from disaster. Which is why the Republicans should adopt their own version of superdelegates to protect the party from future hostile takeovers. With Trump in 2016 viciously ridiculing his fellow Republicans and jettisoning party orthodoxy on issues like free trade, it is an open question whether enough GOP officeholders and party officials would have had the moxie to stand up to him if the party had superdelegates. (Lacking an ironclad means to stop him, they largely went along with him last year.) But every major Republican on the ballot in 2016 should have had a chance to cast a convention vote on the choice of a tempestuous outsider as the party’s nominee.

Democrats have another praiseworthy rule that might have also stopped Republicans from nominating Trump. In response to Ted Kennedy’s 1980 protest about “robot delegates” forever bound to the unpopular Jimmy Carter, Democrats added a “conscience clause” to the rules. That is, a delegate is bound to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged unless in “good conscience” he or she can no longer do so. Had, say, the “Access Hollywood” tape been revealed before the GOP convention, Republicans could have had the option of employing the “good conscience” escape clause.

4.     National parties should control the debates

No element of the 2016 primary campaign was more blatantly unfair than the debates, especially on the GOP side. Republican debates were organized by the cable networks to hype Trump for ratings and deliberately marginalized senior senators like Lindsey Graham and prior victors of the Iowa caucuses such as Santorum and Mike Huckabee. The audiences at many of these GOP debates more resembled a pro-wrestling crowd than voters choosing a nominee for president.

There is no ideal number of primary debates. But there should be enough so that a front-runner like Clinton in 2016 cannot sit on a lead — and yet not so many (the Republicans held 27 in 2012) that preparation seriously interferes with actual campaigning.

Given the record ratings of the Republican primary debates last year and the keen interest on the Democratic side, the national parties are in a position to demand that any network sponsoring a debate has to meet certain conditions. The major error made by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in 2015 was passively ceding to the networks the right to winnow the GOP field to create more dramatic television. The result was an overhyped circus atmosphere that directly contributed to the nomination of a former reality-show host who repudiated many traditional GOP positions.

Never again should networks be allowed, especially before anyone votes, to exile candidates with serious political credentials to a “kiddie table.” If there are too many candidates for a single debate, the party should divide them into two groups by lot and hold back-to-back events.


Whenever anyone discusses the system by which we nominate presidential candidates, it is usually to propose an unworkable system like a national primary, which would rule out all candidates except the already famous and remove any chance of an underdog candidate like Carter in 1976 to ever break through. What is needed is not a far-reaching overhaul of a nomination system that in the past 40 years has given the nation successful presidents like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama. Instead, all we need are adjustments by the parties predicated on fairness and giving primary voters sufficient time for deliberation.

In a democracy, there is no way of guaranteeing outcomes. So possibly in some future year, the nation will again be saddled with two presidential nominees as unpopular as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But the persuasive case for reforming the presidential nomination system in both parties is that it will lessen the odds that Americans will ever again have to vote for president with gritted teeth.




Image credit: Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons