The Primary Election Process Is Problematic

The Primary Election Process Is Problematic

This week, news that Sen. Kamala Harris had suspended her 2020 Democratic primary bid generated grief and bitter feelings among many Democrats, even including those (such as myself) for whom Harris was not necessarily a top choice. Many felt that the end of her campaign (especially while far less-qualified white male billionaires, such as Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, continue to run) was illustrative of the larger problems and injustices inherent in the presidential primary process.

As much as we might like to believe that the best candidate will win the Democratic primary by the strength of their progressive policies, smarts and charisma, some of the deeply-embedded characteristics of the process (early contests in white rural states, widespread caucuses rather than primaries) can give more voice to certain voter populations, which in turn can unfairly benefit certain types of candidates.

The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, and such problems could be ameliorated via smarter policies. Here are two ideas:

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Reform primary debate qualification rules

I don’t fault the Democratic National Committee for instituting increasingly stringent qualification rules, especially given the enormous size of the primary field — 20-candidate debates were a special kind of hell. The individual donor requirements are also a step in the right direction. However, polling requirements have been the barrier that has kept many qualified, sound candidates off the debate stage, especially because early-state and national polls count. Early in the process, some polls can identify which candidates are doing well and which are facing headwinds, but often they’re more reflective of which campaigns have the most cash on hand to spend on advertising. Mere name recognition in the early states does not equate to national popularity, but the former can earn a spot on the debate stage. Herein is an explanation why Steyer, who is self-funding his campaign and blitzing Iowa and New Hampshire with ads, will be at the December debate, but not Cory Booker, Julian Castro or Andrew Yang. It’s unfortunate that in a historically diverse primary, every candidate at the December debate will be white. Had the DNC weighted individual donations over polling in debate qualification standards, there’s a good chance that wouldn’t be the case.

Amend the unrepresentative primary debate calendar

Every four years, a mélange of intrepid senators, governors and other elected officials, all with visions of themselves at the Resolute Desk alight in their eyes, invariably start by paying a call to the state of Iowa and consuming copious amounts of corn on the cob.

Why? The small Midwestern “flyover” state holds its caucuses first, followed by primary elections in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Consequently, those four states exercise a significant degree of influence over who voters in the rest of the country will see on the ballot in later primaries. The winner of the early contests is generally anointed as the frontrunner with all of the electoral advantages that the title conveys — media coverage, attention from prominent donors and the DNC and the imprecisely defined but existentially crucial “momentum.” Candidates who suffer a weak showing in Iowa and New Hampshire often suspend their campaigns soon after. Since 1972, only one major-party presidential candidate has won his or her party’s nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire (Bill Clinton in 1992).

But while they will have an outsize role in choosing the eventual Democratic nominee, the few hundred thousand Iowans who crowd into school gymnasiums and church basements in two months won’t look much like a mirror of America. You’d be hard-pressed to find two states that are less representative of the country than Iowa and New Hampshire — as I wrote in a column last spring, there’s a massive rural bias, and the United States as a whole is 61% white, compared with 86% of Iowa and 91% of New Hampshire.

Iowans and New Hampshirites are too old, too white and too few to merit first-in-the-nation status, critics say. But someone has to go first — who? One good alternative is the Graduated Random Presidential Primary system, which would allow states with smaller numbers of congressional districts to go first, followed by larger states, with some randomness to ensure that large states don’t always go last. At any rate, there is absolutely no reason that an Iowa caucus in early February should be blindly accepted without some discussion over whether that schedule is worth keeping.

The Democratic Party has done more to promote diversity, equality and inclusion than any other political party in the world. It’s past time to ensure that its most important task — choosing its standard-bearer for president — is conducted in a manner that is as democratic, fair and balanced as possible.

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