Primary Bloodshed: Making It Stop


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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77 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    My openness to limiting the power of the populace in constraining the decisions of the parties about who will rule us runs in inverse proportion to the amount of power the most powerful of those parties holds in determining that.

    I would think that would be most people’s view, wouldn’t it?

    If we lived in a one-party state, wouldn’t you damn well want (but also not get) the Party to take full popular account of who will be its Leader? I would. I would be an Open Primary (as weird as that idea might sound in a one-party context) absolutist.

    Well, we’re one party past that in terms of how many parties hold the realistic power to decide who will rule us. So I’m just a little less of an open primary – but to be certain pro-primary-election – advocate than being absolutist about it. Some failsafes for really bad outcomes for the parties. (Lesser parties can do what they want). That’s it.

    If parties want my support to be less accountable to the public in their decisions about who will rule us, they need to start actively working to become less powerful in deciding who that will be – by looking to strengthen lesser parties at their own expense. The more they can be held accountable by competition, the more I will be willing to (though don’t absolutely promise to) release my grip on my demand for popular accountability. If they want me to accept that they are really private organizations who should be left to their devices, then, yeah that’s right, I’m saying it, they need to actively seek to be less powerful in controlling our public political outcomes by sharing power wth other parties and organizations. Yes, just giving it away.

    How likely do you think it is that they’ll agree to that trade-off? Not very. So it’s open primaries for me. At least… primaries. Across the board.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      (…I just wanted to get that out there.

      On your specific proposals I’m gonna mull them over and see if I have any thoughts, but there’s no way I can pretend I’ve given as much careful thought to them as you, so I mostly just appreciate your putting them out there for us to think about.)Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I agree with you up to a point. It’s the intractable position of the parties that leaves me short of being okay with doing away with primaries altogether. And I’d be more inclined to insist that they be open if joining a party weren’t (typically) a simple matter of registering. I haven’t really mulled over the ramifications for caucuses (instead of primaries), but I’m inclined to say the same there and that it can be justified.

      Conventions are the trickiest thing, and they’re pretty rare. One of the most notable ones, Colorado, actually exists in a state that has a referendum process. Which makes it bother me less than it otherwise might because people have it within their power to encourage the party to do something else and they don’t. Which is a bit frustrating for a lot of my would-be reforms (IRV, fusion tickets, etc) that lock the two parties in that I want to blame on the parties but for which we seem complicit, too. But that’s me kind of going on a tangent.

      It’s a fair point, though. As is the point that Ryan Noonan makes that as long as the states are paying for the primaries (which they often, though not always, are) they should be able to insist that they be open.Report

  2. Avatar j r says:

    These all seem like very sensible proposals and no doubt they could each make a marginal improvement to the current system. That said, let me speak up for the pessimistic outlook. The older I get, the more I tend to view things through the lens of path dependency.

    I’m not one of those guys who thinks that the parliamentary system is so obviously superior to our federal system, but the parliamentary system has one clear advantage. The parties choose their leaders separately from the general election process. And when elections happen, the campaigning tends to last a few weeks instead of months on end.

    A better system would be one in which the parties/candidates made their pitch, the people took some time to evaluate, voters voted, the winner wins, and the electorate can evaluate the job of the government against the set of promises that they made. Rinse and repeat.

    Unfortunately that’s not what we have now. We have a two year election season driven by a media that runs on clicks and outrage and a political culture of defining ourselves and each other by political ideologies. Until that changes, our elections will continue to be increasingly meaningless circuses. There is little incentive for the politicians or the media the change, so that change is going to have to come from the electorate. It will. The question is how long that takes and what he next evolution looks like.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    I think the suggestions are generally good and thoughtful. What I’m hitching up on is the assertion that both parties had a terrible primary run. That things haven’t gone well within the GOP’s machine seems pretty self evident but I would suggest (and it’s entirely possible I’m simply being partisan) that some work needs to be done to demonstrate that the Democratic Party’s process has worked poorly.
    I mean, sure, I get that some Bernie supporters are sore; hell in 2008 I was sore for the exact same reason. Yes Hillary has had one hell of a run to get the nod. What I’m missing is where this is an unambiguous glaringly bad thing like it was on the other side of the aisle. Hillary was not owed a coronation; Bernie’s people deserved to make their opinions felt. At current times *knocks on wood* it looks like the Dems internal mechanisms are methodically defusing the tension between the likely nominee and her runner up. I’m just not seeing the big problems. Hillary’s team has been put through their paces big time- that strikes me as a bloody fine thing. Bernie has drawn a whole wack of energetic new voters and attention to the Democratic Party- that strikes me as a mighty fine thing; maybe the Dems can even keep some of them. The Donkeys appear to be cruising down the runway after a tumulus but basically standard primary season. What is the basis of the case that their process is deeply flawed?

    As to Super Delegates, I understand why they’re on everyone’s mind; Bernie’s campaign used them as a significant bugbear during the primary campaign and then it rebounded on him in an enormously ironic manner when he realized in the final quarter that his only hope of winning rested in their hands. Maybe it’s because I was raised in a commonwealth state but the super delegate system seems to have some of that old time organic resiliency that works so well in Westminster parliaments: you have a significant but nowhere near majority of the delegates set aside for the party to use to weigh in on the primary contest. In theory they have the power to swing the contest either way but in practice they always dutifully vote for the pledge delegate winner. I’m far from wedded to that system but its merits and its versatility strikes me as pretty self-evident.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I don’t think either primary is terribly run. I think both primaries have problems that generate a lot of complaints and do not accomplish wha t the parties want to accomplish. Only one of them had a disastrous result, but “disastrous” isn’t the threshold. And bad systems aren’t disastrous until they are.

      We’ve seen what can go wrong on the GOP side. On the Democratic side, they’d gotten relatively lucky with their ability to limit the number of viable candidates to two very quickly. Clinton/Sanders, Obama/Clinton, Gore/Bradley. Their system is actually very good at two-person races, but it doesn’t do anything in itself to reduce the number of candidates, and if three or more stick around you have a very competitive primary that lasts into the summer and that could result in a contested convention. All of which the party wants to avoid.

      This post has been germinating in my head for a while, and a lot of it has to do with the GOP side. What prompted it to finally get written and posted, however, were complaints and criticisms from voters, journalists, and liberal commentators about the Democratic process. They believe superdelegates need to go, and some don’t even seem to understand why they’re there to begin with. Hint: Delegate allocation decisions! To understand why you don’t just “get rid of them” you have to look at the bigger picture.

      I kind of like superdelegates, and hope they don’t get rid of them, but the pressure they’re under to do so isn’t going to go away. Nor are the (far more valid) criticisms over delegate allocation.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Okay that clarifies a bit. I guess my partial blindness on the subject is I’ve never seen more than the kind of Dem primaries we’re seeing now. My political awareness wasn’t up and running and focused on the US of A until 2000 really.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    If you see primaries, instead, as an indicator, this whole “I can’t believe Trump got elected! We need to change the primaries!” thing looks pretty silly.

    “I hate that barometer. It keeps telling me that a storm is coming! WE SHOULD CHANGE IT!”Report

    • Avatar Trumwill says:

      Election systems matter.

      Also, as stated, this wasn’t about how to prevent Trump himself from winning. Doing so would have been very easy, or very hard, depending on the willingness of the party to kilt a plurality winner.

      But everything mentioned here applies as much to 2012, and 2008, than 2016. It’s just that 2016 produced the first result unacceptable to the rule-makers (on the GOP side). Who made the rules with a different outcome in mine.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Many things matter.

        One of those things is continuity.

        If we change the system reactively, it presents identically to us saying “I don’t like losing. How could I not have lost?” rather than “what’s the best system?”

        Especially if we’re using the same system that didn’t bug us overly much in 2012, and 2008, and 2000, and 1996, and and andReport

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          More like “Ah. That’s the hazard with that system.”

          Analogous, to an extent, to the electoral college and the 2000 election.

          I should also point out that many of the proposed reforms would have helped Trump, and address concerns specifically laid out by the Trump campaign.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          (And, yes, I know that you covered this. I just see this whole phenomenon as a way to pretend to have democracy without actually having it.)

          Personally, I think that the best way to do the primaries thing is exactly the same way that we do it now except have the states get different primary/caucus dates based on a lottery (with two separate groups of states, 25 in group 1, the other 25 in group 2, and they alternate which group is going to be the first 25 and which group will be in the second 25)… which means that, sometimes, California will have the first primary. Sometimes Texas will. Sometimes Mississippi will. Sometimes Illinois will.

          Sometimes little nobody states like Iowa or New Hampshire will. We can pick the whole “which states are first next time?” on the first Tuesday after the Republican/Democratic Convention (whichever comes later).Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            I second this reform. Maybe 4 dates, with however many contests (it’s not just states where delegates are awarded – the District plus territories etc.) on each, though. But definitely shorten it up & make candidates choose where to focus. Also, don’t do it regionally so that all they do is have air wars in the major metros of each region. All regions of the country represented on each date.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            Which way? The way the Republicans do it or the Democrats? The way the Republicans did it this yearyear, or how they did it in 2012? The way the Democrats did it this year,or 2008 or 1972?

            There is nothing about the 2016 rules that state “This is the democratic way and attempts to change it are attempts to sneak by that.”

            If we’re worried about simply doing it democratically, then a national primary is the way to go. The only way, really. Though dear god I’d hope there would at least be a runoff.

            Ultimately, the primary process is simply a selection process with democratic inputs. With the exception of Nevius, the entire debate is around who to collect the inputs from (open vs closed vs very closed) and how to assign them to candidates to determine the winner.

            I don’t see any reason that changing the order of the state’s is a valid alteration, but adding IRV is somehow a mechanistic thwarting of the will of the people. Especially given that IRV is generally considered to be a measure to smooth democratic inefficiencies.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Imagine, if you will, a nomination process that got us Rubio and Walker fighting to make it past the finish line at this point.

              Would we even be discussing the failures of the process? It seems to me that the answer to the question about that scenario is an obvious “of course not”.

              If we’re worried about simply doing it democratically, then a national primary is the way to go.

              It seems to me that we do not want to do it democratically but make it present like we’re doing it democratically.

              Don’t get me wrong: there are *THOUSANDS* of reasons to not like democracy. Foremost is the whole “people being idiots who would nominate Trump if they could” phenomenon.

              We want the elites to be running things but we want “the people” to feel like they’re the ones driving the system.

              And, by “we”, I mean “the elites”. I don’t know what those populists want. Who cares?Report

              • Avatar Autolukos says:

                2008 and 2012 both produced quite a bit of complaining about the Republican process. I see no reason to believe that whatever alternative endgame you want to assume would not produce complaints.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Almost certainly. Sanders people are complaining about the outcome of a primary where almost no system would have produced a different result.

                The question is whether or not the complaints are valid and gain traction. (Two separate but not unrelated questions.)Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                I’ve been writing this post in my head since February, when I still believed Trump was going to lose.

                I also addressed the system in which Trump didn’t run.

                And I was talking about the IRV before the primaries even started (though more in a general election context).

                And I specifically brought up complaints that the Trump campaign had, and ways to address them.

                “I don’t have specific arguments against your proposals but object to my perception of your motivations here” is kind of a frustrating response.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Oh, please understand, I am not questioning your motives (and, even if I were, the motive of “to keep someone like Trump from getting elected!” is as good a motive as any to change the system).

                I’m more of the opinion that even if we changed the system to one of the ones you suggested, we’d eventually find ourselves in a place very similar to this one.

                If a place very similar to this one is going to be avoided, the primary system is one of the last things that would need to change.

                The primaries and caucuses are indicators. If we don’t like what they’re telling us (and they’re telling us a *LOT*), a solution that gets us to a place where they’re telling us something else is a solution that gets us to a place where we’re avoiding/ignoring information.

                We don’t have a problem that would be resolved by IRV. We don’t have a problem that would have been resolved by IRV if we instituted it back the first time Nixon ran.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Well, it’s true that it doesn’t solve the problem it’s not intended to solve, if that’s your point.

                It might have prevented Trump. It might not have prevented Trump. It’s a good idea (or a bad idea) either way. Transparency is a good idea in my view even though, in this one case, it would have helped Trump.

                But solve the problem that it’s not intended to solve? It’ll definitely fail at that.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Well, I’m not saying that the arrangement of the deck chairs is something that cannot be improved upon.

                The arrangement absolutely can. If I were to improve the arrangement, I would improve it by mixing up which states go first and do what I can to make sure that it’s random. (Heck, instead of 2 groups of 25, we should have 5 groups of 10 and just rotate through them every 20 years.)

                And so the problem of the arrangement of the deck chairs would not have been addressed by better policies involving how fast the ships ought to be going once the sun goes down.

                I am just trying to point out that the reason the deck chairs are all askew and need to be re-arranged and re-organized have to do with things belowdecks.

                Right now, yes, the deck chairs are a hot mess.

                My point is that re-arranging them without dealing with the things belowdecks will have us needing to have another discussion about how screwed up the deck chairs are in only a few election cycles.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Perhaps next time I will write a post about what you think this post should be about (Trump and how to stop him) instead of what this post is about (a political sciency look at primary processes).Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Well, I don’t see the deeper issue as “Trump and how to stop him” as much as “Trumps and how to prevent them”.

                But, sure.

                Back to your topic without the little popping noises that distracted me so much.

                If we remove the whole “who gets nominated” from the equation, the issue, at the end of the day, is whether the voting public feels like they’ve been better represented by the outcome even if their first (or second (or third)) choice doesn’t win.

                In the places that have systems similar to the ones that you’re talking about, is there greater satisfaction on the part of the people who participate in the system?

                Are there more people who actually do go out of their way to participate in the system? (Or, I suppose, more people who are content enough with the system to allow their fellow voters be the ones to dimple the appropriate chads?)Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Depends on how we define “Trumps.” The party would be wise to be careful how they do so (spoiler: they probably won’t be careful). From a systems standpoint, you have to look at Trump not as a racist, or a fascist, or a bad person. You have to look at the candidate profile, most of which is relatively value-neutral. Trump is…

                – A media candidate. High penetration among relatively low-information voters. (see also Gingrich ’12)
                – Supported solidly by 30-40% of the party, but has difficulty garnering majorities (see also Romney ’12, McCain ’08)
                – Relatively solid support across intraparty ideology (see Romney ’12)
                – Decent support almost everywhere (Romney ’12), stronger in the northeast and deep south and weakest in the midwest and west. (Every candidate has their own map.)
                – Usually high support among independents (see McCain ’00)
                – Not a good fundraiser relative to his polling presence (see Huckabee ’08, Santorum ’12)
                – Has poor organizational and ground support (see Gingrich ’12)
                – Unusually high opposition (see McCain ’08), especially from elected party leadership (see Corbyn, Cruz ’16)

                So the question becomes, which of the above do we want to increase or decrease in importance. Most of these are questions independent of Trump himself, because they almost all tie in to somebody else. Sometimes establishment-desirable candidates, even.

                So no, this post is not about stopping Trump or Trumps in the same way that this post is.

                The most salient question involves how to produce the delegate majority. In a 3+ candidate race, there’s no straightforward answer to that question. This is something confronted by political scientists the world over, with a lot of people coming up with different answers (two-party systems, coalition government).

                The GOP leadership previously answered this by converting the plurality into the majority. Which, it turns out, isn’t necessarily a great solution! Now, maybe when all is said and done the party will decide “Actually, we’d prefer to keep this battleground and we’ll win next time.” Which is legitimate, but in my view wrong.

                Because the system that produced the bad candidate is, in my opinion, actually a bad system that would still be a bad system if it had produced Cruz. Or even Jeb. If we ignore the racism/fascism/charlatan thing, and we should, all three represent different variations of the systems problem.

                Which, even if the system isn’t the only problem, it’s still a problem.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Well, if I may jump back into the pinging noises that trouble me, I don’t think that it is *POSSIBLE* to have a candidate anymore that can be solidly supported by more than 30-40% of the party. If you want solid support, you will never, *EVER* be able to get solid support from more than 40%.

                You want tepid support? You can get to 51%.

                Once upon a time, this wasn’t a problem because there was enough overlap between everybody that the overlap between some peoples’ first choice and everybody else’s second choice left everybody feeling pretty good about themselves. You could get to majority solid-enough-for-jazz support.

                Somewhere around Bush II, this changed. The republicans moved from being people who could all agree on everybody’s first or second choice to being people who found that everybody could grumpily live with everybody’s third choice. (Basing this on the 2008 view of Redstate… nobody had McCain as their first choice. Only a scarce few had McCain as their second. Pretty much everybody had McCain as their third choice.)

                This moving from “everybody’s second favorite candidate gets the nod” to “everybody’s third favorite” is a huge move.

                Which pretty much means that all candidates *MUST* be media candidates now. The arguments are over whether someone is an 8 or a 9 or a 10 on the scale. There’s no longer even room for the 7.9s anymore. We’re waaaay past Reagan and the camera loving each other (while Mondale looked like he was talking to a toaster), we’re only now learning what the internet could possibly mean when it comes to media. We might be jettisoning the 8s soon.

                I don’t know how the fundraising comes into play anymore. I still don’t know what Citizens United means. This election cycle certainly doesn’t give me confidence that the conclusions I had in 2014 were anywhere close to worth holding today.

                Organizational and ground support? I feel similarly to Citizens United. Jeb had the best possible, out of anybody. Maybe it’s more important for a national election.

                As for unusually high opposition, it’s unusually high establishment opposition and that only seems to really matter in a particular framework. Perhaps a pre-internet framework.

                I think that the game is changing right around the same time as former strange bedfellows have ceased having anything in common that they can talk about… let alone things in common enough that they could agree on a candidate that could get a majority of delegates.

                But in thinking about it some more, we might be able to get a candidate who could get a majority of delegates if we had a new citizenry…Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Absent solid support, least tepid works.

                In a side note, I suspect that with IRV, McCain would have lost the nomination.Report

              • Avatar scott the mediocre says:

                Who you think would have won with IRV? Romney (on grounds of being vaguely acceptable to almost everybody)? Someone who in our timeline didn’t run at all?Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                I think Romney. Could have been Huck, though I think Huck like Santorum would have had difficulty closing the deal and I think McCain is slightly more likely than him. But between Romney and Huckabee, I think “Not McCain” wins. He had the same plurality thing going for him as Trump, when I think he was – as Jaybird says – very often the third (or lower) choice.Report

              • Avatar scott the mediocre says:

                OK, I can buy Romney. Not so sure about Huckabee: even though he is or at least was likable and IMHO better at this whole idiotic “having a beer with” thing than most any other serious candidate of the last few cycles:

                1) If I’m a GOP cigarchomper in 2008, I have to worry how well the Southern regionalisms will play in the non-Southern swing states, especially with a few GWB antibodies still in the bloodstream. Compare Palin, who managed to hit the pure motherlode of identity politics without AFAICT coding as regional (even if/though Real Americans are disproportionately represented in the South and Border states).

                2) As I recall some of the Huckabee-friendly press in early 2008, they felt the AEI/Norquist/Club For Growth axis (of actual evil 🙂 had all knives out and guns loaded over his economic heresies. I think that crew probably had meaningful power in the 2008 primaries (not that they liked McCain, but that he would come in ahead of Huck in their IRV if they couldn’t have Romney).Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                One thing worth noting is that, under a different system, they might have run different kinds of campaign. (I think they would have, in fact.)

                I understand your skepticism of Huckabee. I could write paragraphs and paragraphs on it, but I’ll spare you. The long and short is that I can actually paint a path to the nomination depending on the degree of opposition to McCain and his ability to sell himself to economic conservatives. He didn’t do the latter, but also never really tried. Figuring, perhaps correctly, in the system he didn’t really have to. He has since demonstrated himself to be more… ideologically flexible… than he appeared at that time. (It’s also possible that a different system might have elevated someone like Fred Thompson, though I don’t think that’s likely.)

                But yeah, Huckabee would have had a hard time sealing the deal. So, too, would Santorum four years later. But the chances are non-zero.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Huck’s like Trump — his unorthodox stuff plays well.
                koz was pretty bullish on Huck’s chances (in the general), way back when.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                As a generalized caution, I’d be really leery of arguments that boil down to “Under this system, the right guy would have won”. Counterfactuals are tough arguments because they’re so easily moved by your own biases.

                But pitches like that….that X would have won if only….that’s got a lot of the “silent majority behind

                That said, I happen to think IRV is a better voting system in general.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                It wasn’t a pitch as much as an observation. I think Jaybird is right that McCain was a lot of people’s third choice and that’s disadvantageous in IRV.Report

              • Avatar scott the mediocre says:

                FWIW, I agree with your point that, assuming individual voters’ preferences don’t change in odd ways over the course of the primary season, IRV is less susceptible to path dependence effects than any of the various GOP rules that have obtained recently.

                It would be interesting to see the counterfactual of the 2004 Dems with the same candidates and something like your proposed rules – I think Kerry was also a tepidly acceptable 3rd choice, like McCain. To your point about different campaign strategies, pre-Iowa Dean and Gephardt would presumably spend less effort attacking each other.

                To your point that the OP wasn’t about bidding No Trump, you could cite e.g. Rapoport, Abramowitz, and Stone, whose National Republican Voter Survey this year (over period +/- 2 weeks from Iowa, among declared certain GOP primary voters) had Trump winning all pairwise contests (though only 52-48 versus Cruz, and the sampling bias of only voters in primary states might have slightly favored Trump v Cruz).

                If we think of delegates as parliamentary members and candidates as parties, i.e. in some sort of party list PR scheme, how about some sort of STV for delegates (e.g. under the current GOP system of three delegates per CD, you have an obvious three member constituency)?Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                From what I saw different polls had different results, and there was a shift some time in March. We also don’t know how differently the campaign might have gone if the inputs were different (ie Dean/Kerry).

                But I’m not banking on the different outcome. If I were, I’d be saying “Rip off the model Democrats use” because that’s the best path. Or, of course, #BanPrimaries. But IRV, whatever the outcome, is worth pursuing. Most primaries don’t have Donald Trump.

                I’m against any CD-based allocation. Unlike states, congressional districts are political units of convenience rather than distinct political units.Report

              • Avatar scott the mediocre says:

                My reason for mentioning the GOP’s (admittedly somewhat silly) CD-based allocation was as a (very) poor proxy for trying to capture cases where there is really substantial within-state clustering of the preferences of the primary voters (my guess is that in the case of within-state splits of GOP primary voters, the principal component of those splits maps modestly well to predominantly urban-suburban vs predominantly exurban-rural, but the only hard data I have seen on such things is from CA, where the intraparty dynamics are, err, unusual).

                Given that the party collectively(1) is trying to maximize the net present value of the nomination selection, where winning in November is a large term in the NPV calculation, it seems like the nomination process ought to be significantly weighted to choosing the nominee who is most likely to produce high differential turnout, with weighting for the per-state elasticity of electoral votes (e.g. North Carolina has high elasticity because the two coalitions in present form are reasonably well balanced in presidential elections versus New Hampshire where the number of functional swing voters is enough to matter as well as the coalitions being fairly balanced). The party data wonks also should take minor account of differential turnout even in non-contendable states, I guess, both because of down ticket effects and minor extra mandate-claiming when popular vote coincides with the electoral college result.

                (1) Individual party actors are of course trying to maximize their personal NPV, which obviously sometimes anticorrelates with the party’s NPV, c.f. the importance of the slot on Fox (or, to a much lesser degree, MSNBC) as part of the career path at the national level.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                “I don’t have specific arguments against your proposals but object to my perception of your motivations here” is kind of a frustrating response.

                But the thing is, while we appreciate the effortpost, we feel that it’s appropriate to question the premise. Because circumstances can’t help but leave us wondering if this is, in actuality (while not conscious intent), an attempt to Make Bernie Not Have Lost and Make Trump Not Have Won. That it’s a response to the personalities involved. “Oh, I’m not saying I’ve got anything against the PEOPLE, I just think that maybe a better system could be had and this just happens by pure coincidence to be the time I’m proposing it”.

                It’s like all those people who tried to come up with alternate systems for Hugo voting, but didn’t mention the Sad Puppies thing. Like there was no reason at all for them to rework the system, like they just happened to be struck by a random thought that maybe the Hugo system ought to work differently.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                I anticipated the response, but that’s also why I specifically addressed it in the post itself. If the goal were merely to jilt Trump, it wouldn’t have taken 4,000 words to do so. It would have taken “Republicans should adopt the Democratic system. It’s better.”

                That certainly would have saved a lot of effort.Report

              • Avatar Mo says:

                Sure, and imagine if the o-ring hadn’t failed and the Challenger had a successful launch that cool January morning. No one would be questioning NASA’s decision making process, even if it was the exact same bad process. Just because nothing goes wrong doesn’t mean a process is good. Failure is a frequent impetus for process improvement.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I think my argument is that Trump is not an example of the primary system failing.

                It’s an example of the primary system working.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Depends on the aims, which may or may not be democratic. But even assuming they are, the case would be stronger if he’d gotten a majority. Which the IRV might (or might not) have demonstrated.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew says:

              If we’re worried about simply doing it democratically, then a national primary is the way to go.

              I do like the system in which there are stages to the race where different parts of the country have a say in who continues. That puts the candidates through a gauntlet and lets people react to how they negotiate it, whereupon the candidates then react to that.

              You could argue that’s slightly undemocratic, as some people get to vote with more information than others. But we generally say that those who go first are most influential right now. So it seems like those balance out somewhat.

              Maybe you count a national primary broken up in stages (as we agree about above with regional balancing) as still “a national primary.” Maybe that’s even what you mean by it. Not clear.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                My sense is that if you’re just making it a popular vote, it’s probably for the best that everybody votes on the same day. You could maybe have straw polls and caucuses to test the waters before hand. I’m not sure how they would be received. Maybe like the meaningless Iowa straw poll, or maybe with a lot more gravity because they’re the only pre-primary information we have besides polls. My guess is the former, but I don’t know.

                I am fine with primaries not being especially democratic, as you know or might guess. I think the Trial By Combat really has something to be said for it, as well as not letting the GOP be dominated by its voters in the South and the Democrats dominated by its voters in a few select cities. So I’d mostly just tinker.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            (And, yes, I know that you covered this. I just see this whole phenomenon as a way to pretend to have democracy without actually having it.)

            I think this is the key point, Jaybird. One could say, consistently with some of your other claims, that from its inception the US experiment was a way to pretend to have a democracy without actually having it (in the beginning, only white males could vote; the Senate was intended to be a constraint on the deleterious effects of “actual” democracy; etc). Lots of ink has been spilled analyzing the essential role propaganda plays in maintaining “order” in democratic societies…

            If you see primaries, instead, as an indicator, this whole “I can’t believe Trump got elected! We need to change the primaries!” thing looks pretty silly.

            Yes indeedy. Which is why all the conservative’s gnashing and wailing about “why Trump and who’s to blame?” is so misguided. As I’ve written here, and people smarter than me have written elsewhere, the GOP’s actions and rhetoric in recent past – especially during the Obama years but extending further back than that – effectively created the cracks thru which Trump-scum percolated to the top. That is, the indicators suggesting the ascension of Trump (who is really just Palin 2.0) at the political level were obvious to see. And now, his having won the nomination is an indicator pointing back in the other direction, to the new-found or newly-expressed interests reflected in a large part of the electorate.

            {{I don’t have any suggestions on how to fix this problem…}}Report

  5. Avatar Aaron Warfield says:

    Very nice piece Will, a lot to think about here.

    That said, I think all of this would be academic if one thing happened. The party listened to its members. Not the media or the other parties machine, but its members. The biggest mistake that the R’s made was putting Jeb on stage and ealier in the cycle not listening to the members on immigration. Those two things, in my eyes, are what really bit the party in the butt. The establishment being bullish on Jeb, who was well past his sell by date, and Rubio having the same problem that Romney had, totally the wrong stance/background on an animating issue, gave the party no leverage over its voters, and allowed Trump in. By the time they realized he was real, they had nothing to take to the voters.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      As stated, “how Trump could have been stopped” is not really the thesis of this piece. The answer is by using the Democratic system.Report

      • Avatar Aaron Warfield says:

        Oh, I know, but that was what was going threw my mind as I read it. But, taking away the particulars of this election, I still think that is the answer. If a party is responsive to its members, and not the machine around the whole shebang, this system works a lot better (again, in my eyes.)Report

  6. Avatar Marchmaine says:

    With regards IRV and Delegate Allocation (by Candidate) the party would also have to reckon with what it means to suspend a candidacy?

    Technically, all the candidates, even Carson and Christie are still running… just not actively running since their campaigns are suspended.

    You’d certainly have to have a party enforced rule that “ends” a candidacy… otherwise the IRV would never trigger (at the macro level in the late season) plus the incentive of controlling your allocation of delegates would also encourage people to hang around for relevance and a seat at the convention table.

    On the other hand, why not just make the primary invitation only? You have to be invited or nominated to participate in the primary by the party leadership committee. The party could also decide on the optimal number of initial candidates…Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      You’d certainly have to have a party enforced rule that “ends” a candidacy… otherwise the IRV would never trigger (at the macro level in the late season) plus the incentive of controlling your allocation of delegates would also encourage people to hang around for relevance and a seat at the convention table.

      I’m not following this. It seems to me that IRV handles the zombie candidacy better than the current system by a mile. The biggest zombie candidate (I think) was Rubio. With IRV, Rubio would still get his votes, but since they wouldn’t be above any particular threshold they’d almost certainly be reallocated. Whereas now, they’re just dead.

      Now, two areas I didn’t address was removal of candidates from ballots and what to do with the delegates bound to non-candidates. The status quo varies from state to state and a degree of consistency would be preferred, but it might be harder to enforce than it is worthwhile. But if I’m wrong about that, I would start by allowing their candidates to hold on to them until the convention. Since I would have the delegates actually associated with the campaign, they’d actually be Rubio people or Carson people or Jeb people. This could create some problems down the line if nobody gets a majority. There are multiple ways of dealing with that, though.

      One thing I don’t favor is retroactively reassigning votes and delegates after a primary, and maybe that’s what you’re talking about. In other words, if Jeb drops out after South Carolina, I don’t favor recalculating the New Hampshire total. That’s just… too complicated. At least, that’s my initial response.

      On the other hand, why not just make the primary invitation only? You have to be invited or nominated to participate in the primary by the party leadership committee. The party could also decide on the optimal number of initial candidates…

      That’s sort of what Cost and Anderson advocate. Letting “the party” select five people or so, and then letting the voters pick between them. It’s an idea that has some merit, but I suspect is too radical an idea to be accepted I think. I also worry, on an outcome-based level, whether that veers too far into the undemocratic zone. (Which as I say in my Hit Coffee post wouldn’t be a problem if we had a more fluid party structure, but we don’t… which seems like it at least kind of imposes some democratic obligations on the parties we do have.)Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine says:

        Ah, I see what happened.

        One other issue that ordered balloting would address is the problem with early voting. In the GOP primary this year, the field was relatively fluid and a lot of voters sank their votes into candidates that dropped out of the race. It didn’t ultimately change the outcome, but it’s not optimal. Allowing voters to provide an ordered preference would allow them to vote for the candidate of their choice, but if the candidate drops out, to have their vote transferred to another choice.

        I confused early voting with early voting. Here you are talking about early votes in one state’s primary where that candidate drops before election day… not re-calibrating preferences across states when early voter’s candidate drops out later in the election cycle.

        Re: Party Slate… I wonder whether it would be seen as all that radical? I suspect that most people without thinking on it assume there’s some sort of approval you have to get to run. But yeah, maybe not.

        On the other hand, since you seem to acknowledge the importance of building inter-factional support, and, combined will Delegate Allocation, then it might bring a certain structure to the Party itself and its nominating practice. Was Cruz the best representative the SoCons wanted put forth? Why was there a Rubio and a Jeb? Could Rand have run as Rand instead of the person he impersonated? Might actually get genuine platforms with real trades and commitments for a governing strategy.

        Or, we might get Jeb!, Barb!, Jenna!, Neil!, and Doro!Report

  7. I think the first question, the horse of the whole enterprise, is “what does each party think a party should be?” A variety of reasonable answers are possible each suggesting a different candidate selection process (the cart). The Bernie Party seems to see itself as favoring the idea of inclusivity over building party apparatus. The Hillary Party perhaps reverses these attributes. Both are needed, but the emphasis is different.

    Undoubtedly there are any number of properties one could use to define the overall Party character. These two are just ready at hand.

    Unfortunately the discourse on the basic purpose of a Party exists almost entirely by implication rather that directly in a focused way. As long as this is mostly true, confusion and chaos is likely whenever the body politic is stressed.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      There’s a literature on the Basic Purpose – I think it’s among other things (obviously) coordination around shared goals, and then disseminating (political) information (basically telling people why they might assent to this or that ruler). The rise of the media age therefore put parties significantly on their back feet compared to earlier times (not pre-media per se, but pre-the notion that a working-class individual might independently gather information from nonpartisan sources, look at who might be a good person to be a ruler, and make that decision on that basis, rather than only based on what the dominant party in their area or for their Group says would be best for them). Parties still do solve the coordination problem – you need to move from a population of a million having, say, 10,000 people they support for Ruler, which is maybe as far as non-partisan information sources could get us on their own, to say 10 or 100. My intuition is that parties exist even prior to what that literature suggests, or at least that they have to exist logically because of that last reason – there has to be some intermediation to get from Many to Few potential Leaders.

      That’s a really basic, almost logically necessary reason that parties have to exist. But it’s not some kind of general permission slip from The Sky do what they want. In fact, to me, that they are maybe ordained by logic is precisely a reason to less-credit this claim that Hey, we’re just private membership organizations; unless you’re a member, you have no claim on how we behave.

      It may be simply a numbers game, or it may be due to a limitation in human nature, but my intuition strongly tells me that we are condemned to do our politics through parties if we are going to try to govern polities larger than the classical Polis. If they’re that fundamental a part of human society in the age of Nations, then to me there is no reason that it should follow that they should be immune to claims about the demands of democratic justice, merely because they claim to be private organizations. They are seeking to fill a necessary purpose that is necessary to achieve public ends – the coordination of the choice about who gets the power to make and enforce laws (if there are laws). If they don’t want the public accountability that comes (should come, anyway) with that, then they can choose some other aims for their organization. If they’re doing things wrong, including not being accountable to the public (not just membership), then just by being a person trying to live in the society whose public life they seek to influence through coercive government, you have a claim against the ways they are doing wrong procedurally or substantively.Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Good post. The IRV is definitely the revolutionary thing, the rest are either changes on the margin, or have effects that depend entirely on the circumstances of the race.

    Specifically, the dynamics of open vs closed depends very much on whether there are one or two (or more) competitive primary races in the cycle, how competitive they actually are, and whether or not a cycle with competitive races in more than one party all happen on the same day.

    (the first ‘Super Tuesday’ was especially quirky in Virginia, with an open primary, dual competitive races (but one much more so than other), early in-person absentee balloting, and a mood that was shifting against Trump only a few days before the main election day.)

    Conventions tend to favor establishment candidates, though the right grassroots candidate can also do well.

    I don’t think this is correct. This is certainly not been true in Virginia over the past few years as the Va Republicans have used conventions to pick their candidates for numerous statewide offices.

    Conventions are caucuses on steroids (and crystal meth) – they tend to favor candidates the activists like, but most people with a more casual affiliation with the party would vote against.

    Now, where the ‘establishment’ sits between those two groups (hardcore vs casual) is the question of our timeReport

    • Avatar Autolukos says:

      If there is one thing I learned from this primary season, it’s that “establishment” means just what the speaker wants it to mean.Report

  9. Avatar Morat20 says:

    While I’m with you on most of this, I think your stance on early voting runs into unintended consequences — early voting isn’t just popular because we’re lazy, it’s because voting is often a PITA to do — especially for people who lack flexible work schedules.

    To be really blunt: Us middle-class and better types can generally miss an hour or two of work to go to a well-lit, convenient polling place, stand in a short line, vote, then go back to work and (probably) make up our long lunch or slightly late start to the date.

    That’s…not a universal thing. (That’s assuming primaries not caucuses, the EASIEST method of voting. Caucuses are that problem cubed). And creating a voting system in which voting becomes more difficult for large swathes of the citizenry is not really expanding access and getting a feel for the base.

    Now, trade my primary vote-by-mail, limited absentee ballots for people who will be out-of-state that two week period? I’ll happily give up early voting for a two week vote-by-mail period.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      My impression is that the early voter tends to actually be more affluent than the same-day voter, but I could be wrong. Either way, if early voting doesn’t increase turnout, it’s not apparent that the barriers are all that large.

      Even so, the middle ground I advocate is not to ban early voting so much as it is to limit it. Basically voting week rather than voting day. Or just have the polls open the weekend before the Tuesday of voting.

      Or IRV, of course. There’s always IRV.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        There’s plenty of data out there on voting participation rates, and 50 laboratories to compare. Admittedly it’s national elections and not primaries, but that should suffice.

        IIRC, longer early voting periods, lax absentee ballot rules, and such tend to correlate with higher voter participation. With, of course, vote-by-mail setups getting the highest results.

        That doesn’t even get into the strange inadequacy of polling places on election day in some areas. Given primaries (caucuses can burn in a fire*) are run by the state, even though a given party might not want to play “Screw certain demographics/areas”, whomever controls the state government might.

        *Seriously, whomever thought it was a great idea to strip the electorate down to “people who can afford several hours to sit in a room”, THEN add in “let’s avoid that secret ballot thing”, THEN add in “And let your neighbors pressure you to change your mind” and then often added “We’ll do this several times in a convoluted system” was a moron. I get the idea of “Let’s have a local discussion on politics and see who we should support, as friends and neighbors, but that’s not how it actually works).Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          There is data, but for early voting specifically the data suggests that it may even lower turnout. In conjunction with other measures there is an increase in the same way that if you combine Troy University and the University of Alabama you get four college football national championships in the last ten years.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 says:

            Simple solution: Switch to “by mail” voting with IRV (with limited absentee rules) — give it a week or two period to get the ballots mailed.

            Let the parties try it out, see how it goes.

            But burn all caucuses to the ground. Ban them as cruel and unusual punishment.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        California posts some statistical breakdowns of their mail-in ballots (two years ago in the general, just over 60% of ballots cast were mail-in ballots). It’s interesting to look at the data on “ballots not counted” in those. Voters aged 18-24 are significantly more likely to have their ballot not counted. The largest single reason, at about 60% of the uncounted ballots? Arrived late.

        Procrastinators gonna procrastinate.Report

  10. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    This was a really good post, Will. I only have two thoughts.

    Thought #1: My only hedge is that I am unsure you can create a system where you won’t, from time to time, have problems that make the whole apparatus appear fixed to the minority. If the GOP, for example, had the ability to pick Trump out from the crowd and toss him, when he was the clear favorite of the voters (or at least clearly more of a favorite than anyone else), are they really in a different situation than they are today?

    I believe that we have a tendency to think of the complex, massive movements of society as the result of a binary fork in the road whose direction was navigated by one person (or a few people), when in fact they are not. (e.g.: “If Obama has done X rather than Y we wouldn’t have to worry about terrorism today!”, or, “If Bush had done A instead of B in late 2008, we never would have gotten into the Great Recession!”)

    I wonder, in other words, how much of the problems we had with this primary had to do with primary rules, and how much had to do with us being a nation of 320 million people with agendas.

    Thought #2: Hanley is against primaries?

    I find that… most surprising.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I wonder, in other words, how much of the problems we had with this primary had to do with primary rules, and how much had to do with us being a nation of 320 million people with agendas.

      That’s the thing that systems are meant to deal with! And no way of dealing with it is perfect, but some are more imperfect than others. There aren’t any ways to cure the problems, but there are ways to mitigate.

      As I say in the post, if the goal is to keep Trump from getting the nod, the solution to that is easy. Adopt the other party’s system. However, doing so creates other potential problems. Also, if the Democrats want the process to wrap up earlier, the solution to that is easy. Adopt the other party’s system.

      So where does that leave us?

      But that doesn’t mean that some systems aren’t better than others. I am pretty open minded and I see the defense of a lot of things (caucuses, closed primaries, skipping primaries altogether), but there are some that are pretty indefensible (CD-based WTA) and there are some improvements I see very minimal downside to (IRV! IRV! For the love of god, IRV!)

      Yeah, Hanley is against primaries. I emailed him prior to publication to ask if my characterization of his view was fair. He responded too late for me to incorporate it into the piece, but he said he thought it was fair and “I would add that committed party activists are more likely to have the party’s interests in mind than casual voters with minimal attachment to the party will.”Report

  11. Avatar Francis says:

    I’m still not sure what the set of problems is that you are trying to solve. Most of the grousing I’ve read from people purporting to speak for senior members of the Republican party boils down (to me, at least) to being disappointed with their own voters.

    Virtually every single Presidential candidate ran against the “Establishment”. But among those who rose early to the top, one candidate’s claim resonated the most strongly — Trump. And why would Cruz, for example, be ashamed of being of the Establishment? He’s a Senator from Texas! If it is Republican dogma that everyone in Washington is corrupt, including members of their own party, then (a) change the dogma or (b) recognize that the party has nurtured an environment where non-traditional extremist candidates will have an immediate advantage over everyone with actual experience in governing.

    Virtually every single candidate ran on some version of an anti-immigrant platform. But since the actual Republican policy is to maintain a workforce of illegal immigrants in the country to work in agriculture, meat-packing, hotel and construction industries, anyone who has spent any time in DC can be hung on their petard of failing to solve the problem of immigration. And where everyone is in agreement on a policy, the person who goes biggest is going to win. Once Trump came out with the Big Wall, how could anyone go bigger? Issues like getting Democratic support to move the bill through Congress don’t appear on the campaign trail. (The same is true of the Democratic campaign.)

    Virtually every single candidate ran on a tax-cut platform. Trump appeared (some of the time) to reject the idea that tax cuts should go primarily to the wealthy. That’s a great populist statement, and one that neatly divides the party from a big chunk of its voting base. Same with shoring up and even growing Social Security — another Trump policy.

    In order to offset its loss of black and Latino votes, the Republican party has quietly made a home for the substantial minority of White racists. Trump just said the quiet parts loud. Anti-Muslim, anti-Latino and anti-immigrant rhetoric resonated because the people who wanted to hear that message were already consolidated in the Republican party.


    To reiterate, what is the problem with the primary system that is represented by the nomination of Trump? It appears to me that the reason he won a crushing majority is that he told the voters exactly what they wanted to hear.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      To reiterate, what is the problem with the primary system that is represented by the nomination of Trump? It appears to me that the reason he won a crushing majority is that he told the voters exactly what they wanted to hear.

      Exactly. And no disrespect to Will or the quality of the post, which is well argued and expressed.

      On the other hand, tho, I’m totes on board with IRV, irrespective of its benefits (??) in problematic primaries like the ones we’ve just gone thru. I just think it’s good for democracy.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Your OTOH is what this post is about. Well, not the IRV only, but some good ideas that would improve the system and/or address some problems and concerns. Including Trump’s.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Should I have put the part about this not being about depriving Trump of the nomination in bold?

      Trump won because he got 40% of the competitive vote in a system where 40% of the competitive vote gets you the nomination. Changing the system might have prevented his nomination, or it might not have. Counterfactuals are hard. And if the goal simply were to prevent Trump, that’s a much simpler post.

      Trump wins, Trump loses, I believe the reforms are worthwhile for both parties to consider. Even the ones that would have actually helped Trump along. Cause this isn’t about depriving Trump of the nomination.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      To answer your question, each section more-or-less seeks to address a different problem or concern. To review:

      Primaries vs Caucuses, Open vs Closed: I actually have no recommendation here because each “problem” is really only a problem depending on one’s perspective. But you can’t talk about primaries without talking about this.

      Delegate Allocation: A WTA-heavy system like the GOP has converts pluralities into majorities. This has perverse effects on campaigns because campaigns become built around getting to 40-45% rather than trying to build a consensus. Consensus-building is an objective of a primary system. You want as many people to be happy about the nominee as possible. On the other hand, a completely proportional system like the Democrats have drag the primary season on longer than is advisable, draining the winning campaign of time and energy.

      Superdelegates: This is more descriptive than advisory. I mostly explain superdelegates in the context of the above dilemma, and say that they are unpopular but required if you have a system that is proportional-based.

      Instant Recall Voting: Strategic voting isn’t optimal, and this reduces the need. It also helps candidates get to a majority of votes by progressively shifting votes to the more viable candidates, but allowing people to vote their conscience (at least as their first vote).

      Early Voting: People cast votes for candidates who weren’t even in the race on election day, while failing to accomplish its aim of increasing voter participation. No action needed here with IRV, though, since if a candidate drops out their support will be transferred.

      Regional Balancing: Regional imbalance in the primary calendar makes regions-of-support unduly influential. Candidates can have the aura of momentum due simply to the calendar and where votes are being held.

      Transparency: The delegate allocation system is opaque and difficult to understand. On the Democratic side, you see candidates who get fewer votes getting more delegates in ways that are difficult to explain. On the Republican side, delegates are not chosen by the candidate they are bound to, which created a scramble for supporters on the second ballot. If nothing else, the optics on this were bad but really people should be able to understand the system and the current system is hard for even political geeks to understand.Report

      • Avatar Francis says:


        fwiw, I think that the importance given to Iowa and NH are outrageous and the excuses made by the parties (importance of retail politics, primarily) patently ridiculous. But putting major states like California or Texas early in the process give the dark primary of lining up big dollar donors even more importance. It’d be nice to cut down a little on the role of money in federal politics, if possible.

        I suspect that transparency is a problem only a few people care about and then only for a few weeks every four years. And any system that allows Party officials to push back against the pure vote counts out of each state will be seen to lack transparency by the adversely affected candidate.

        At the end of the day, both parties are trying to balance a simple and transparent system against their desire to retain control of the process. The easiest thing would be to have a closed primary with delegates allocated solely by percentage of statewide vote won. But neither party’s senior staff wants its candidate picked on that basis.Report

  12. Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

    I’m fine with IRV, but generally, I’m for semi-closed primaries with reasonable time periods for party switchers – in other words, independents or non-registered people can switch to the party the day of the primary, but people in the opposite (GOP or DNC) primary have to switch within let’s say, 60 or 90 days to stop any possible Operation Chaos possibilities.

    I think that’s fair and allows grassroots candidates to bring new people into the party without opening up the party from shenanigans from the outside.Report

  13. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Really thorough analysis, Will. But I’m pretty much with Still. Trump didn’t win through some horrible systemic failure. He won because he’s what the voters want. And even if there were GOP superdelegates, they’d fall in line than split the party for a certain loss.Report