Primary Bloodshed: Making It Stop
The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost is a pretty angry man. A fierce critic of Donald Trump, the primaries did not turn out the way that he had hoped. More to the point, though, he saw it coming. Not Donald Trump specifically, but a broken primary process that was in need of serious reform. Along with Jeffrey H Anderson, he penned an elaborate revamp of the process that would have, if instituted, balanced democratic instincts with establishment prudence. The party paid no heed, and here we are.
Truth be told, I don’t favor Cost’s plan. It would be far too complicated and difficult to understand. If it worked perfectly, it could easily be an improvement over the current system, but it is (as James Hanley described it) a planner’s plan, and bound to frustrate the very people it needs to be sold to. From the party’s standpoint, it would be too expensive. From the voter’s standpoint, they would want to know why they can’t just vote like they used to.
Other people have put forth other radical plans to change the system. James Nevius is the latest in a long line of people agitating for a national primary with a runoff. This certainly looks more attractive to me personally than it did a year ago, but most of my objections remain. A primary calendar allows candidates to build support over time. A national primary would put almost all of the emphasis on media and money, and very little on organization and voter interaction.
Others, like formerly our own James Hanley, believe that primaries should be done away with altogether because they encourage populism and party office holders shouldn’t be saddled with nominees they don’t support.
A lot of things brings us to the questions, what are primaries for? A lot of people believe that they are mechanisms by which the voters decide who the November candidates should be, but that’s not actually true. Primaries are a mechanism by which a party decides who the best candidate for November is. In the United States, this decision is typically turned over to the voters but it need not be. In fact, in most of the rest of the world, it isn’t. It’s likely to a party’s advantage to have at least a quasi-democratic process in order to make the broader population, and their voters and potential voters more specifically, feel like they are a part of it.
Primaries as a mechanism of party decision-making, and primaries as mechanisms of democracy, are two different things and the distinction is important. If we believe that primaries are meant to be democratic, then it flows from that undemocratic elements undermine the process rather than are an intentional part of it. This is an issue in the Democratic Party as it pertains to superdelegates, and in both parties as it pertains to the ability of a convention to – at least theoretically – unseat the guy (or gal) who got the most votes. That only applies, though, if democratic selection is the only, or at least primary, goal.
Additionally, such a posture assumes that the members of a party are primarily voters. This is a mostly ahistorical and America-centric view. Parties were formed not by people, but by politicians. The primary stakeholders are those whose careers depend on the success of the party. There are other stakeholders, such as donors and activists and voters, but while we call them “members” they are more accurately described as “customers.” They’re important, because it’s important that the party please them as every business needs its customers, but they are invited into the process more as a courtesy, and a statement that they and their input are valued, rather than out of democratic necessity.
Though #BanPrimaries was my thing on Twitter for a while, I don’t presently advocate actually banning primaries. In a rigid two-party system, there is a moral argument that the people should have a voice (if not the only voice) in the direction of those parties. In order to convince me to do away with primaries, you’d have to include a lot of system revisions that would allow for ineffectual parties to be replaced. As long as we have two parties, and those parties occupy expensive real estate on the ballot, they should be accountable in more ways than a two-party general election in a First-Past-The-Post electoral system. Also, sometimes the voters have something to say worth listening to.
Lastly, a quick note on what this post is not about. It is not about trying to figure out a way that Donald Trump isn’t the Republican nominee. If the party is willing to jilt him at a convention, it would not require a great deal of creativity to create a hypothetical system that would have prevented him from being the nominee; it would only require adopting the system that the other party uses. Likewise, if the party is insistent on making the plurality-winner the nominee, there is no surefire system that would prevent him from getting the plurality. There are a couple that might have, or possibly probably would have, but counterfactuals are hard and somewhat beside the point. Whether something is a good idea or not depends on its effect forward, rather than backwards.
Beyond that, some of the proposals I favor would actually help Trump. In general, it’s a bad idea to change the process to avoid a single result. That, at least arguably, lead to the nomination of Trump. The GOP felt like the 2012 nomination ran on too long and that more weight should be given to the plurality winner to avoid that messiness. The problem is that in 2012, the plurality winner was Romney, but in 2016 it was Trump. Oops. It’s not that the decision to weigh towards the plurality was wrong, but the danger was judging the process by individual outcomes, rather than as a process.
The two parties have their own way of going about it, each have their merits and downfalls. There are some things that I believe both parties should do, but many of them are relatively neutral options depending on what the party elders believe is best for the party.
Primaries vs Caucuses, Open vs Closed
There are basically five ways that states can hold their elections: Open primaries, closed primaries, open caucuses, closed caucuses, and conventions. They all have their benefits and drawbacks, and favor different sorts of candidates. With caucuses, turnout tends to be lower but with a more engaged electorate. This favors candidates with more grassroots support and better organization (Cruz, Santorum, Sanders) and disfavors media candidates (Gingrich, Giuliani, Trump). For establishment candidates, it can provide a good test of a candidate’s executive function, which is a benefit. On the other hand, it tends to favor more extreme or niche candidates at the expense of those with broader bases of support. Conventions tend to favor establishment candidates, though the right grassroots candidate can also do well. Primaries favor the relatively disengaged and casual voters, which in turn favors media candidates (though to a lesser extent than the others favor the others).
Some of the same questions apply to open and closed contests, whether we’re talking about primaries or caucuses. Open primaries can be a good way to reach out to potential swing voters in November and make them feel a part of your party’s process. However, the level of engagement can be minor, and you can run into things like bad faith voting (voting in the other primary to torpedo a more competitive candidate, for example). Open primaries tend to favor more moderate candidates at the expense of the grassroots. Is that what you want? Is that not what you want? It really comes down to, you guessed it, what you want.
By and large, I believe a mixture of all of the above to be the best approach. By default, I tend to favor primaries or a primary-caucus hybrid with the latter being real caucuses. The sort of all-day affair with minimum thresholds and people moving from one part of a room to another. The Iowa Democratic Causes, basically. Considering how much I am about to encroach on state autonomy, however, I would probably leave this alone as a gesture of good faith. I would focus more on how the delegates are allocated, which I will get to later. I would also favor a greater degree of uniformity in how they are conducted, wherever possible.
Delegates can be allocated in a number of ways. You can give all of the delegates to the winner, you can give all of the delegates to the winner if they get a majority, you can give all of the delegates to the winners of each congressional district, or you can allocate them proportionally. You can also add thresholds where, for instance, all of a state’s delegates go to a single candidate if they get a majority, or none go to any candidate with support under 20%.
The Republican Party has a pretty good process here, for the most part. Early states have to allocate their delegates proportionately, with later states having the option to go Winner-Take-All. This rewards states that hold back by making each one more important. They tend to ramp up to Winner-Take-All rather quickly, though, and allow a bunch of loopholes that states can use to overwhelmingly allocate their delegates to top candidates. This is not unintentional, but rather was a response to the 2008 and 2012 elections, where it was felt the process dragged on too long to the leader’s detriment. The idea was to accelerate the process so that the plurality leader, assumed to be an establishment broadly acceptable candidate, would more quickly become the majority-delegate winner.
Trump, of course, created some real problems for them. More accurately, he successfully exploited the system in a way that other candidates tried and failed. The problem with this system is that it doesn’t matter how much disdain the rest of the party has for the plurality winner, and that creates some perverse incentives. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz could each build a credible campaign that extended the middle finger to the other factions whose help they wouldn’t need if they could only get out in front. The establishmentarians backed Jeb Bush with a similar belief that “Once they win, they’ll have to support us.” It’s led each faction to dig in its heels that much further, which has created an unhappy environment.
For Democrats, the process is tilted towards more consensus-building with delegate allocation being far more proportional. The problem with proportional delegate allocation is that in a three person race, nobody gets a majority. Even if eventually candidates do start dropping out, it can elongate the process to a great degree. If you have a particular stubborn candidate, they can still be duking it out in June even though everybody knew the results in April. This drains campaigns of funds, and results in more time being spent campaigning against one another than against their common enemy. Worse yet, if you have more than two candidates, you run a very real risk that nobody gets a majority. The mere possibility of which can attract more candidates, which can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the party has an impetus to support the person who got most votes, which has all of the pitfalls of the Republican process but without the possibility of a quick resolution. There is, of course, another solution to this…
Early on, Republicans mocked the superdelegate system. They’re not laughing now. Superdelegates could easily have spared them Donald Trump. Most of the time, such as in 2008, the superdelegates are going to go with the person that gets the most votes. They can declare their support as the campaign goes on and draw the system to a close early so everybody can focus on November. The problems with superdelegates are mostly perceptual. People have purchased into the notion that primaries are supposed to be democratic and it just feels wrong to them that a person who gets less votes should be given the nomination over a person that got more. Which makes it, if not a toothless threat, then a trigger you can probably only pull once before getting a lot of pressure to move away from the system. In the meantime, though, at least the threat of superdelegates can have a moderating effect. If the GOP had superdelegates, Trump may have run a different campaign and Cruz almost certainly would have.
In an ideal world, this wouldn’t have the bad rep that it has. In the real world, it’s enough that Democrats are going to catch grief for it every year whether it affects the end results or not, and it’s going to be hard for Republicans to start having them unless as part of a grander compromise.
Squaring the Delegate Allocation Circle
The basic problem trying to be overcome is – at least on the Republican side – a surplus of candidates and votes divided unevenly. In the 2012 Republican primaries, there was one establishment candidate and two primary opponents to his right (and Ron Paul). in 2016, they had a very controversial frontrunner whose opposition was divided several ways and whose competition spent all of their time attacking one another trying to create a 1-on-1 dynamic. There was something of a collective action problem, where it was in every candidate’s interest to go after someone other than who was winning, which ended up keeping everybody else down. Down the stretch, you started getting things like “strategic voting” where Mitt Romney was imploring Ohioans to vote Kasich and Floridians to vote for Rubio, and before that you had Rubio costing Cruz Missouri, and Kasich costing Rubio Virginia.
The strategic voting problem is eminently avoidable, however, with ordered balloting. The Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). I support the IRV in general, but elections with a large field of candidates in particular are the sort of thing that IRV was made for. It allows people to vote for whomever they want, but also making clear their preference among the top-tier candidates if their original preference isn’t one of them. It also mildly encourages candidates to try to sell themselves, since they might need the reallocated votes of their rivals if they occupy a similar ideological space.
To get the states to go along, you would make it a requirement for early states. You would likely still allocate delegates proportionally, but with thresholds as high as needed to eliminate the number of candidates you want to eliminate. Start out at 10%, maybe, but raise it pretty quickly to 20%. Reallocate all votes that don’t meet that threshold. For later states, only allow Winner-Take-All for candidates who get over 50%, which would further incentivize IRV. This would allow the frontrunner an opportunity to put some distance between them and the #2, but would also do more to assure that the candidate is reaching out to more than just a faction of the party’s electorate.
Also, A Triangle and a Rhombus
The IRV is not the only way around the plurality problem. The parties could also consider a run-off in June among the top two candidates. This would at least force candidates to reach out beyond their own faction. However, it would also leave the nomination in doubt until June, and cost a lot of money. To save money, you could use the primaries to produce eligible candidates for a convention vote, and basically let the conventioneers decide who the nominee is. That would, however, leave the nomination in doubt until July and would be seen with suspicion by the party faithful.
So basically… IRV: The Time Is Now!
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.
Without ordered balloting, early voting should be restricted as much as is feasible. The case in favor of early voting is actually rather weak to begin with in general elections. Voters go to the ballot box with less information than they would otherwise have, it reduces the community action that is arguably the only rational reason to vote, and it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. But it’s convenient and voters like it. So why not? In the case of fluid ballots, it basically encourages spoiled ballots.
There is the issue with the ever-popular mail-in ballot, however, and Tuesday (or even Saturday) voting has a lumpy impact on participation that is best avoided. You can split the difference by having “voting week” if you’re so inclined, with maybe two weeks for mail-in ballots. That would, if not eliminate the problem of voting for zombie candidates, at least mitigate it.
Or, you know, IRV.
One thing that caught people’s attention early was the transition of “Super Tuesday” into “The SEC Primaries” on account of so many of the Super Tuesday primaries being in the South. Even later states being in the same region can be a problem, if they’re WTA. Given that candidate support is often regional, this benefited some candidates at the expense of others in ways that are not good. It creates an illusion of momentum when it’s really just a matter of which states are voting and when. For the most part, the primary calendar should be as invisible within the process as possible.
This makes suggestions for reforming the primary by having a series of regional primaries an especially bad idea. The winner could be determined by whether the first region to vote is the South or the Northeast, or the West or the Midwest. That is not something either party should want to be a factor in the election. This is not easy to game, and it’s generally left up to the states anyway after the first four.
It might be ideal if the parties could knock New Hampshire and Iowa off their perch as the first two states, but since both states are potentially competitive in November neither party is going to want to risk it. Also, something something tradition something. After that, however, the best solution would probably be to seek a degree of regional balance. Instead of breaking them out by region, have between 4-6 layers of states that are regionally balanced to whatever degree possible. This would be inconvenient and more expensive for the campaigns, but it would prevent candidates from getting a leg up based on where they are. This was part of the idea of making South Carolina and Nevada pivotal, to add a little diversity to the early states. This is simply taking that to a more logical conclusion.
Asking or requiring this of the states is not easy for the parties, but they both have an interest here and if they’re both willing to slash delegates to make this happen, states will ultimately comply. If the parties want it badly enough, they can, and they both should.
Some of the above suggestions require change, and people are often averse to change. Introducing people to the ordered ballot would be a challenge. If the GOP wants to add superdelegates, or the Democrats want to keep them despite their unpopularity, they need to give something in return. That something should be transparency.
Believe it or not, opacity does have its qualities. It is, for example, one of the few safeguards party leaders have over the process. It can give party people an opportunity to put the brakes on a mistake that the voter is making, for the sake of the party. It also provides something of an obstacle course for the candidates to navigate, which is a test of their administrative capabilities in a way. It spoke well of Obama in 2008 that he was able to do so as effectively as he could, and of Cruz in 2016. It spoke poorly of Trump and Gingrich that they couldn’t.
Whatever its benefits, they seem increasingly outweighed by the costs of perceived legitimacy. The public hasn’t bought in. That doesn’t make them right, but it does make continuing the system something of a challenge. On the Democratic side, the issue is delegate allocation leading to uncomfortable situations where candidates who get more votes end up with fewer delegates. On the Republican side, we saw it on full display with Cruz’s (entirely legitimate! but unpopular) delegate swipe.
The transparency should primarily come in the form of delegate identification and allocation. Unless you have a system specifically set up wherein you are voting for delegates with the intention of them deciding who to vote for, the candidates should be able to appoint their own delegates. The only restriction, if there is one at all, should be that they live in the state that they are representing. Avoid situations where delegates are headed to the convention supporting one person but voting for another. Most of all, avoid West Virginia.
A willingness to take these steps should make the other steps easier to sell. This could include undemocratic mechanisms such as superdelegates, and may include the ordered ballot. The main losers would be local leaders who get to use their local influence to become delegates, but that’s probably a constituency that can be alienated and if they want to be delegates they can sell themselves to the candidates.
I would love to be so optimistic as to believe that important people in the Republican and Democratic Parties will stumble across this and believe that I am an interesting person with interesting ideas and they should pay me a lot for consultant work. Or, absent that, that they get some of these good ideas from someone else and run with them.
For the Democrats, I am not even a nominal stakeholder at this time, and they likely have eight years to sort things out anyway. I do genuinely hope that as they look to shorten their primary season and perhaps shelve superdelegates that they do not see delegate consolidation (WTA, etc) as a convenient solution to both, and that they recognize that the result of 2016 was at least in part a product of a primary system that pitted faction against faction in a deathmatch to get to 40% and the problems that entails.
Unfortunately, the response from the Republican Party to all of this has been tepid, and rather reactionary. The only concrete suggestion I’ve heard is to start closing the primaries, which like the delegate consolidation after 2012 is a response as likely to cause tomorrow’s problems as to solve yesterday’s. It’s something to do to convince yourself that you’ve done something. And not surprisingly, it is an idea being pressed by the party faction (Cruz/Santorum) that would most benefit from it.
The primary process should not strive to be as democratic as possible. Nor should it strive to place one ideological cohort over others. The purpose is to field the most competitive nominee possible that is acceptable to the party itself. One party failed at this miserably, and the other is to be determined. We’ll see where things go from here.