Canceling Primaries?

Four state GOPs appear poised to cancel their primaries/caucuses.

To further illustrate a point that I have continually made during the current administration: in our system the president has more influence over party than the other way around, we have the following report from the NYT: G.O.P. Plans to Drop Presidential Primaries in 4 States to Impede Trump Challengers.

The Republican Parties in Arizona, Kansas, Nevada and South Carolina intend to cancel the 2020 presidential primaries in their states, according to three people familiar with their plans, a move aimed at depriving President Trump’s long-shot challengers of chances to build support.

The state parties have not formalized their decisions, but Mr. Trump’s challengers denounced the move. Joe Walsh, a former Tea Party congressman from Illinois who announced his candidacy last month, said he planned to fight the move legally and by appealing directly to voters in those states.

“It’s something a mob boss would do,” Mr. Walsh said in an interview. “All the times in 2016 when he said the Democrats were rigging the system to elect Hillary? He is actually eliminating elections in certain states, and that’s undemocratic.”

Where to begin?

Well, first, it is worth noting that parties sometimes do cancel these nominating contests when the incumbent is unopposed by any significant challenger. The problem is, however, that a) Trump has two possible challengers now (Walsh and Bill Weld*), and b) we are so far in advance of the event that we really do not know if other challengers might emerge or if the conditions of the contest could evolve in some significant way.

Second, I have written before that I have concluded, due to studying parties and nomination processes in a comparative context, that primaries are not all they are cracked up to be. There are at least two major problems with them.

Problem number one: they limit new party formation: by opening up nominations to electoral contests, primaries disincentivize serious new party formation (because the pathway to the ballot becomes primaries). As a candidate I have a better chance of both getting on the ballot, and more importantly, a better chance of winning office by competing for the nomination of one of the two mainline parties.

Problem number two: since there is no central authority that says what the party stands for in any meaningful sense, the winner of the nomination shapes the party. For example, it is how the GOP has gone from a pro-free trade party to a pro-protectionist party in the blink of an eye. While it seems more democratic to have primaries, the reality is it makes more democratic sense for voters to have clear choices during the general election so that they know what they are actually voting in favor of.

Keep in mind: under the primary system anyone who says that they want to be a Democrat or a Republican can do so. And once they win a primary, they become to official bearer of that label. If they win, they bear the label and are an office-holder who shapes what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican (contrast that with the ability of Boris Johnson to oust 21 MPs for voting against him this passed week–they were stripped of the ability to use the Conservative Party label and they cannot stand for election as a member of the party).

Third (which follows on from the previous point), I would note that this is an excellent illustration of the the weak, decentralized nature of American political parties. Notice that this is a state-by-state issue. The RNC really doesn’t control much.

Now, having said all of that, and especially having noted the fact that I think primaries cause more harm than good, it is an insidious, corrupt, and anti-democratic action for the GOP to try and such out competition when the overall nomination process is heavily predicated on primaries. This a blatant power-grab to protect the incumbent president (the politician with the most control over the party label and apparatus). This is changing the rules mid-game because certain power-brokers don’t want Trump embarrassed or weakened by an intra-party fight.

Further, it is keeping the basic nomination process in place: state-based contests to name delegates so that the national convention will officially nominate the party’s candidate for president while removing at least four of the competitive stepping stones to that end process.

So while having primaries is by no means the sine qua non of democratic nominating procedures that some may make them out to be, this move is an strongman’s attempt to control his party and it also underscores his pettiness and vulnerability. If he or his advisers truly feel threatened by Walsh and Weld, they must really feel insecure about their general election position.

I would note, that as I understand the reports, the decision to cancel has not been finalized.

*One may wish to quibble about how significant these challenges might be, but a former US Representative and former Governor rise to a sufficiently significant level as to be more than just nuisance or vanity candidates.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. dennis says:

    Listened to Michael Steele’s podcast this morning during which he touched on exactly that. Of course, he made the comparison of 2016 Democratic outrage at stacking the deck for HRC vs the utter silence from the GOP over this. Of course.

  2. charon says:

    Pretty confident Trump will be their nominee they are.

    Meanwhile, Trump’s behavior is evolving:

  3. charon says:


    Pretty confident Trump will be their nominee they are.

    Which I approve of heartily. The longer it takes the GOP people to become aware, the better. GOP convention next summer will, my expectation, be a fascinating show.

  4. Kathy says:

    It strikes me as damaging the party’s own processes too much just to salve the vanity of one loser.

    Is there something else in those Twits the Twit sends we don’t know about? Like a computer virus, or ransomware, or something?

  5. @Kathy: Like I said: the president influences the party more than the party influences the president.

  6. CSK says:

    @charon: I think “devolving” is a better descriptor than “evolving” in this case.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    All of this so that he won’t be embarrassed…what a pathetic creature is…as are all of those who enable him…