Presidential Primaries Might Be a Terrible Idea

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Political parties aren’t the government, even though the Democrats and Republicans have so entirely weaved their parties into the machinery of government and the electoral system. Constitutionally, the two major parties are no more “official” than the Natural Law Party or the Rent is Too Damn High Party. They are nongovernmental associations that organize to field candidates for public office around the shared positions and values of whatever coalition of interests they can cobble together.

As such, they can choose the candidates they’ll run for office any way they like. Right now, the two major parties base these decisions largely on constituents’ votes in primary elections and caucuses, run through a very porous filter of delegate allocation. But if they chose, they could have party bosses choose candidates in smoke-filled rooms. They could even draw straws to see who would run for what, or have prospective candidates engage in medieval combat. It’s up to them.

The primary system we have now is relatively new, and on its face, the idea that the constituents of a party would choose a presidential candidate by (more or less) a popular vote seems like a good idea. It feels, if nothing else, fair. This is a democracy, and so we’ll pick our candidates democratically.

We take this for granted as the wisest and most morally correct method. We can see this whenever the prospect of something that might contradict the popular verdict arises, like superdelegates in the Democratic Party, the specter of a brokered convention, or when the particular rules of a given primary or caucus seem less than straightforward. People’s hackles are raised, and there is much crowing about the right to vote and the subverting of democracy.

But of course, we do not have a constitutional right to vote for party nominees. (Indeed, we don’t even have a constitutional right to vote at all, but that’s another discussion.) Candidacies aren’t political offices. It may be cynical or underhanded for a party to subvert the will of its primary voters, but it’s not against the law or a violation of representative democracy.

In case you can’t tell, I’m no longer convinced that primaries are the best way to choose candidates for office. Even just confining the discussion to the presidency, it no longer seems self-evident, as it once did, that the two major political parties are doing anybody any favors (themselves or the American people) with the primary system as it is. I also don’t know if the alternatives are any better.

I used to work for the electoral reform organization FairVote, and wrote many thousands of words about ways in which the primary system could be improved, but those improvements always focused on increasing the democratic fairness of the primary system, including holding either a single National Primary Day or having a rotating calendar of primary elections, all to reduce the outsized influence of New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina on the process. As I write today, though, I’m not sure we should be having these elections at all.

Obviously, it’s this year’s election that’s making me lose faith in the system. The clearest example of primaries-as-shitshow is the GOP race, where an angry, violent, and happily ignorant band of racists is about to lift Donald Trump to the nomination. There is no way this is a good result, not for the Republicans, and not for the country as a whole, which will be subject to his idiocy and thuggery, and have to go through the motions of treating his candidacy with a show of seriousness. It’s abysmal. And if someone like Cruz were the other “popular” alternative among the GOP primary electorate, that’s no better. He’s a maniac, and such a maniac that even his own lunatic colleagues loathe him.

It’s not the same with the Democratic Party, but it’s still bad. Not because Bernie Sanders, if nominated, would be somehow be a disaster (though he would be far more likely to lose in my opinion). He’d be fine and perfectly respectable, and I’d be proud to vote for him, though I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s. But the fact that the choice of the Democratic Party’s nominee is being left largely up to Democratic voters, the supporters of the two candidates are incentivized to vilify the candidate they don’t support. If there were no primary contest being held, Bernie people and Hillary people would overlap, and everyone would be cool with each other, working together toward common goals, even if not all of those goals are shared in precisely equal measure. But since we’re subjecting them to a popular election, we have Bernie supporters trying to convince the world that Hillary Clinton, the likely nominee, is evil incarnate, a lying, heartless monster who must be destroyed, which of course damages her chances for the general election and overall poisons political discourse among the constituents of the only party that is, right now, serious about governing.

So imagine a scenario in which a presidential nominee is chosen by existing officeholders within a political party, and that’s it. All the party’s governors, Members of Congress, and heck, even the state legislators and mayors and whatnot, all get together, in person or virtually, and argue and debate until they hold a vote, and then pick their party nominees. It has at least the whiff of representative democracy in that all the stakeholders will have been themselves elected, but it avoids the mob-driven death march of the primary campaign.

Or maybe we still have primary elections, but as they have at times been, they are straw polls, beauty pageants, displays of strength and potential support among the grassroots. And after the entirely non-binding straw poll votes are held, the aforementioned party officials take that into account when making their decision.

Or maybe there’s something else that makes more sense. Maybe a board of directors of a party should just hash it out in a room, with or without the smoke. Maybe a randomly chosen “papal conclave” of party stakeholders should figure it out and draft a candidate. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that we have a problem with primary elections. They’re producing bad results, either in the candidates they annoint or the damage they do to a party. I can’t say I’m now wholly opposed to them in principle, but I can say that perhaps it’s time to at least consider that we should save all the democracy for Election Day itself.

Malleable

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Former President Jimmy Carter would take Trump over Cruz, and so would I. Jimmy says:

The reason is, Trump has proven already he’s completely malleable. I don’t think he has any fixed (positions) he’d go the White House and fight for. On the other hand, Ted Cruz is not malleable. He has far right-wing policies he’d pursue if he became president.

This is exactly the point I’ve been making about Trump vs. Cruz, but President Carter put it perfectly. Trump is malleable. He pretends to have an ideological agenda, but it’s all show. He just wants to win the big popularity contest and get the job. He may be terrible at it if he gets it, but he won’t be guided by some absurd belief that the creator of the universe must be placated through government fiat. The only supreme being he cares about is himself, and he’ll do whatever he has to do to keep things running to his satisfaction.

I’m not saying he’ll reveal himself to be a closet liberal (though one never knows), but that he’ll roll with it. He won’t embark on crusades, he’ll cut deals. He’ll allow himself to be influenced, he’ll feel the political winds, and he’ll probably try to get a few things done. It’ll be pragmatism and ego, not zealotry. (And, with Cruz, also ego.)

This is why I used to half-jokingly tout Mitt Romney for president, at least for the GOP nomination. Yes he was poised to be the most likely to be able to defeat President Obama, but it was a more palatable thought than a Gingrich or a Santorum getting the nomination and then somehow winning the White House. Romney wasn’t just “moderate,” he was, like Trump, malleable. He’d want to get things done. If it meant chucking Republican dogma or snubbing Tea Party dumbasses, then so be it. If the political tides shifted in a particular direction, he’d have leaned into them in order to keep things stable.

Cruz is not malleable (except his god damn smug pompous shit-eating fucking ass-face). He’s a fanatic. Trump is a salesman, Cruz is a maniac. If I have to choose, I’ll take the salesman.

 

‘Twas the Night Before Iowa (Which Probably Won’t Matter)

2012 GOP Iowa Caucus winner, President Rick Santorum. Um.
Here’s what I think of the state of the race on the night before the Iowa caucuses.

The polls right now for Iowa are more or less meaningless. Yes, Clinton and Trump are both up a little in the final pre-Iowa poll, but it doesn’t really matter. Save for the poor bastards in single digits, the Iowa caucuses are one of the least predictable “elections” in modern politics. For candidates within a few points of each other in polling, everything can hang on innumerable (and entirely banal) factors: Will it rain? Is there snow? Are people too busy? Are babysitters available? Are there enough cars and vans to bring people to caucus sites? Do enough people give enough of a damn about who becomes the nominee to show up, or is everyone pretty content with whoever winds up winning? Did we call enough people? Did we knock on enough doors? Did we know on too many doors, and call too many people, and become annoying?

Hell, if it’s really close for the Democrats, it could all come down to which campaign has been nicest to O’Malley, as his utter lack of viability in just about every caucus site means his few voters will have to go with a second choice. The candidate O’Malley’s voters like better could decide the whole night.

I was in the Hillary Clinton war room for the 2008 caucuses, and hopes were pretty high. I think the prevailing sentiment was that we would place a strong 2nd (behind Edwards, I thought), but alas, we were trounced by Obama and edged out by Edwards to land at 3rd. Remember the Democratic race in 2004? Wasn’t Howard Dean supposed to win that with Gephardt close behind? They came in 3rd and 4th.

So forget the polls as far as the top tier candidates are concerned. For Clinton/Sanders and Trump/Cruz, this is up in the air.

So while I won’t predict any winners, I will predict this: Iowa won’t really matter. Let’s say Sanders does win, and by a meaningful margin. He could take that momentum, build on his support in New Hampshire, and win big there, too. A rocket-launch to the nomination, right?

Look, it’ll totally suck for Clinton if she loses both Iowa and New Hampshire, and Hillary Death Watch will be on full alert. But I can’t for the life of me foresee a scenario where Sanders takes these wins and turns them into victories in South Carolina, Nevada, and the big states for Super Tuesday. Does anyone really think Sanders can win in South Carolina, where the African American vote is the whole ballgame? Or in California? Or New York? It’s possible, of course, but at this point it seems absurd to think so.

I think Iowa is slightly less meaningless for the Republicans, only because a decisive win by Trump could indeed begin the end of the race, for it would certainly catapult him to an even larger victory in New Hampshire than he is already likely to enjoy. I am skeptical, though, of a Trump win in Iowa, simply because I suspect his on-the-ground operation won’t match the religious fervor of Cruz’s supporters. And if Cruz does win, it’s no big news, it’s more or less expected, so the race remains one between him and Trump, and we trudge on. Nothing in the race’s dynamics change as a result of a Cruz victory.

Iowa’s greatest impact will likely be to begin the weeding out of the also-rans. The bottom half of the Democratic candidates more or less lopped themselves off after Iowa in 2008. I can’t see any reason for folks like Fiorina, Santorum, or Huckabee to trudge on once they get shellacked in Iowa. (And I suspect Huckabee is readying to endorse Trump after Iowa, and so a Cruz victory could be heavily dampened by a key establishment-evangelical nod like that.) Alas, Iowa losses likely won’t deter Kasich, Bush, or Christie, who have their hopes pinned on New Hampshire. And Rand Paul seems to be running for something other than the GOP’s presidential nomination, so who knows.

On the Democrats’ side, O’Malley will stay in the race as long as he technically is able. Why? Bernie or Hillary could get hit by a bus or something, and he wants to be ready to fill a spot just in case.

What do I know? A year or so ago, I certainly thought Cruz would be one of the main contenders for the GOP nod, but I also thought Rand Paul would be his main competition. I could be entirely full of it.

But that’s never stopped anyone from making predictions before. And I think at this point in my career, I’ve learned at least something. I can’t wait to find out!