Thoughts on the US Presidential Primary System
The system isn't very good.
The NYT (2024 Republican Presidential Primary Calendar) provides the following graph of when delegates are selected in the pending 2024 Republican Primary process. Note that fairly early in the process, half the delegates will have been selected. Indeed, Ballotpedia tells us that by the end of Super Tuesday, 42.28% of the delegates will be allocated, a week later 48%, and two weeks later 62.17%. As such, it would take a truly bizarre set of outcomes for the 14 remaining post-March 19th contests to matter one whit.
Now, this structural fact is making news of late, because the following has been frequently noted:
This means most voters will go to the polls not knowing the outcome of a federal trial that charges former President Donald J. Trump with conspiring to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. The trial of Mr. Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, is scheduled to start March 4, one day before Super Tuesday, the largest single day of the primary season.
Or, more significantly, voters won’t know of trial-related revelations, as goodness knows when a verdict will be rendered. And while I do think that this is a noteworthy observation, I don’t think will matter all that much, as quite clearly the majority of the GOP selectorate is all-in on Trump (just shy of 60% according to FiveThirtyEight), and it seems rather unlikely that that will change. I still think the only way there is a disruption to the GOP nomination process would be health-related (the same is true of the Democratic process).
Side note, I do think that the trial(s) will affect the general election, but that is a very different animal from the primary process.
At any rate, I come here not to fret about the relationship between the primary calendar and Trump’s legal woes. Nay, I come to simply point out that the calendar is, well, kind of stupid (to use the technical, political science term).
We pretend like this is a national contest and that each state matters, but this is clearly not true. Even going into the concentration of March primaries, it isn’t like there is usually a strong competition, even in years without an incumbent/former president running. The primary process is heavily focused on early success in very small states and is as much a perceptual/press process as it is an electoral one.
Indeed, winning early small states with paltry delegate counts can matter far more to the contour of the race than the math at the time would dictate. And while it is true that some state allocate their delegates proportionally (or, really, semi-proportionally), the devil is in the details. First, relatively small numbers of delegates are harder, mathematically, to divvy up proportionally, insofar as that tends to favor the candidate with the most votes. Further, if the slicing and dicing of a state is down to the district level, it becomes even harder to allocate delegates proportionally in any significant sense. In short, the smaller the number being divided, the more plurality winners benefit, even with proportional rules. Also, the thresholds are pretty high even in “proportional” statement (by rule they can be as high as 20%) meaning that small-vote getters, even with consistent winnings, get bupkis from the given contest.
So, really, I would suggest every read “proportional” in press accounts as “semi-proportional” at best.
The bottom is that after Super Tuesday, it is basically over and the remaining contests are almost a waste of time and money, save for maybe largely procedural needs. May and June contests have never mattered, and never will. Even April tends to be pointless.
In many this echoes some of my problems with the Electoral College, insofar as both purport to be national contests that take the citizens of all the states into account by forcing candidates to take all the states seriously. However, this is not the case. For the nomination, the calendar dictates importance and in the EC, competitiveness drives it. There is zero incentive in either process to actually take the voters across the country with equal seriousness. Zero.
Further, if the argument is that we need a democratized candidate selection process, then the electoral calendar needs to be compressed. Quite frankly, if that is the goal, then one national primary day, or some sequence of closely clustered primary days, makes more sense.*
For what it is worth, my position has nothing really to do with the contours of the 2024 race. If you time-traveled back and asked me to assess the calendar decades ago, I would have had similar thoughts although depending on how far back you went, you could have found a much younger version of me who would have been far less critical of primaries as a general matter, and would even have extolled them as democratic as some point in my past. But, you know, thinking long and hard and looking at evidence can change minds. Still, I don’t think I have ever thought that the calendar made a damned bit of sense. Somewhere in the archives of my life is a column, I think in the Mobile Press-Register, arguing to move the date of the state’s presidential primary up from June to March, because in June, the state didn’t matter at all.
Often people ask what alternative I would prefer. To be honest, I would rather the parties shift to an entirely convention-based system that did not even utilize the primaries as “beauty contests” the way they did prior to the 1972 reform to the process. I am open to other options, but I am increasingly of the view that forcing parties to collectively assess what they stand for and what they have to do to select the most electable candidate would be far healthier for our democracy than the “democratized” candidate selection process we currently have.**
At a bare minimum, based on the conditions of the race right now, conventions next year would select Biden and Trump, and far more cheaply at that. Further, a convention in the summer would also certainly be more able to adapt to changing conditions (e.g., health or criminal justice related) than the primary system can.
Using conventions as described might have avoided Trump in the first place, and they would also allow the Democratic Party an actual mechanism to replace an aging Joe Biden if, in fact, there was real cause to do so (my money would still be on re-nomination under such a scenario, based on current information, by the way, even at his advanced age).
I also think that if we had a pure convention-based selection process it would cultivate real third-party candidates because any power-seeker who wanted to run would have to break off and form their own party (or run as an independent) because they would no longer be able to use the primary process as a gateway to the general election ballot.
I would note, too, that often one side doesn’t even have a contested primary process because an incumbent is running for re-election. This raises questions of expense and purpose of even holding primaries in those years for that party (which is why you end up with things like the Florida Democrats canceling theirs).
*FWIW, I do not think that the “retail politics” of small, early primary states tells us much of anything useful about candidates, so do not fear losing that in the least. Indeed, I would far, far, far value candidates forced to address national issues instead of kowtowing to corn subsidies in Iowa or whatever other hyper-local silliness the candidates are forced to pretend to care about as a function of the happenstance path dependency of decades-old primary/caucus calendars.
**Ironically, sometimes less democracy means a higher quality democracy. Another example of this would be our long ballots in the US. It is, on the one hand, in the abstract more democratic to have more offices elected, but the reality is that if the voters really don’t understand what they are voting for (or don’t turn out because there are too many elections) then the actual result is not a quality one.