Electoral Reform- Part 7: Primaries and Caucuses

Most nominees for political office are chosen through the primary election system. Many have noted that this system tends to select the more “extreme” candidate for either party at the expense of the more moderate candidate since it is the hard-core Republican or hard-core Democrat who tends to show up for these primary elections. However, that assertion tends to miss the point and assumes that all hard core Republicans are extremely conservative and all hard core Democrats are extremely liberal. I believe that a person who considers themselves a hard core Republican in Maine, for example, would not describe themselves as extremely conservative or that one who considers themselves a hard core Democrat in Alabama would not also consider themselves extremely liberal. It may be true in certain locations in the country like San Francisco where the hard core Democrat IS extremely liberal. By and large, the extremes tend to cancel one another out.

Primary election laws vary by state. In closed primaries, only registered and declared party voters can vote in their respective party’s primary election. Usually one has to declare party affiliation at some specified time prior to the primary. In semi-closed primaries, independent voters or new voters are allowed to declare their party on the day of the primary and then vote in that party’s primary. The final option, open primaries, comes in two forms. In a blanket primary, there is a single ballot with candidates from all parties and the top vote getter from each party then moves on to the general election. It is possible that two or more Democrats, for example, may be the top vote getters with a Republican finishing fourth. However, the first and fourth overall vote getters in this system would move onto the general election. In the open top-two-vote-getter (TTVG) system, the top two vote getters regardless of party would move on to the general election. It is very possible for a Democrat versus Democrat or Republican versus Republican general election could result.

In fact, California recently adopted the TTVG system in 2012. The system is obviously simplistic. The general idea is that regardless of party affiliation (actual registered party members know which is which), candidates are “forced” to reach out to the approximate 20% of the electorate that is independent. In effect, it is an attempt to limit the influence of political parties at the primary level by focusing on ideology, issues and solutions. However, this system institutionalizes the concept that the so-called moderate candidate should be the preferred candidate in all situations and at all levels. In effect, it is appealing to an actual small percentage of the electorate to decide an electoral outcome.

Washington adopted this system previous to California with the result being basically a Democrat versus Republican general election match up since. In California this year, of the 53 congressional districts, 12 involve general election match ups between members of the same party. In district 30, two Democratic incumbents faced off against one another in the general election- Brad Sherman and Howard Berman. They are ideological twins- both liberal. This begs the question as to how this system moves a candidate to the center especially in a district that is composed of liberals. In California, we had Democrat v. Democrat general elections in the 13th, 15th, 29th, 30th, 33rd, 35th, 37th, 40th, 43rd, and 44th congressional districts. The average Cook PVI rating of these districts is +20 Democratic. There were Republican vs. Republican general election match ups in the 8th and 31st districts with an average Cook PVI rating between the two of +9 Republican. Regardless of this gimmick, you cannot change the ideological make up of the district. Thus, if anything, the districts will become more Democratic/liberal or more Republican/conservative. It is predetermination of the outcome as far as representation with respect to party affiliation with only the face changing. In fact, because there may be non-existent ideological differences between the candidates, campaigns would focus more on personalities and tend to be more negative than if they were issue or ideology focused. It is akin to establishing one party rule in a congressional district. Assuming one does not list their party affiliation on the ballot, knowing that there are more registered Democrats in a district, what is to stop a candidate from claiming to be Democrat when they are in fact Libertarian or even Republican?

Another possibility is this: in the TTVG system, suppose two Democrats face each other in the general election. Both have staunch liberal views and voting records. Both agree 100% with Obama’s redistribution of wealth policies. In fact, their only difference seems to be under what conditions an abortion should be legal, but keep in mind that both are staunchly pro-choice. Are voters expected to decide a winner based on nuances of abortion availability? The possibility for single issues determining an outcome are greater in this case and the debate, such that exists, would be over trivialities. More likely, the election would be decided by personalities rather than issues. This could be why Washington, which used this system before California, produces Democratic versus Republican match ups all the time.

It is true that closed primaries tend to produce lower turnout and attract the more ideologically extreme voters. Hence, it would stand to figure that less moderate general election candidates are produced. Critics often point to the GOP, but Democrats are also guilty of the practice. One need look no further than the presidential primaries this year where candidates essentially tried to out-conservative one another knowing full well that the more conservative voter was more likely to participate in the primary election on the GOP side. Mitt Romney was criticized for the so-called “Etch-a-sketch” nature of this phenomena. But, Obama in 2008 was no less guilty of the practice. The fact is that despite the primary outcomes, in general election campaigns, both parties readjust the message knowing that they are now playing to a different audience. Assuming support among the base is strong, they have to reach out to independent/moderate voters. This creates greater “moderation” than any other gimmick.

That is true at the presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial levels- all statewide elections. That is not necessarily true at the congressional level. Here, some geographical areas are simply more liberal or more conservative than others. In the other districts which may be close, we actually see campaigns more focused on issues- some specific to the district. For example, defense spending may be a big issue in a district with defense contractors. How does a Democrat justify a policy of decreased defense spending to that constituency? In effect, they need to moderate their view, or educate. Likewise, how does a Republican justify massive changes to social security in a district rich in senior citizen voters? In effect, they need to moderate, or educate.

Another example is Nebraska where elections for the unicameral state legislature are non-partisan. Candidates can state a party preference on the ballot. That is all well and good, but does anyone doubt that Nebraska is a staunchly conservative, Republican red state? Non-partisan elections are simply window dressing and end up being just as partisan as any other elections in the end.

As for the choosing of presidential candidates, many have proposed the elimination of the caucus system and moving to the primary system. However, look at the states that hold caucuses for both parties: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, Washington and Wyoming. Caucuses are held for the Democrats only in Louisiana and Nevada and for Republicans only in Montana. This represents only 48 of 538 electoral votes, or a mere 9%. Caucuses are prevalent in the small population states because they make greater sense. Perhaps the only criticism is the emphasis placed on the outcome of the Iowa caucus and that emphasis is media-created. In Iowa since 1972, only 5 of the eight non-incumbent Democratic winners went on to become the Democratic candidate. Among Republicans, the percentage rate is smaller. In the past two Iowa caucuses, neither winner- Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee- went on to become the party’s candidate.

Likewise, because it is the first in the country, there is an over-emphasis on the New Hampshire primary. But even then, their success rate in choosing the eventual Democratic candidate is only 60% and only 56% for the GOP. Together, these alleged momentum builders equal exactly 10 potential electoral votes. Obviously, it is not a question of primary versus caucus that requires reform, but the calendar for primaries and caucuses.

A run for President should not be a 3-4 year marathon. Primaries begin in January now and end in September in some states. By decreasing the time period from a six-month primary calendar to something more manageable, it would allow a non-incumbent more time to raise funds for the general election and more time for the party to coalesce around the candidate. Of course, they should be adequately vetted by primary voters, but the time frame can be shortened.

The political world can take a cue from the National Football League for primary calendar reform. Probably the best solution would be to create an, in effect, series of Super Tuesdays. For those states wishing to hold their primaries or caucuses on a Saturday- and there are a few of them- there could be a single Super Saturday. The first would be held in early March. States are increasingly moving their primary elections for President further back in an effort to have a greater say in the process in a classic case of one-up-man-ship. Instead, if both parties can agree on a timetable, primaries and/or caucuses would be held in blocks over five or six consecutive weeks. Assuming the first is pushed back into March, the whole process would be completed by the end of May. This way, not only could the nominating conventions be pushed back into July or mid-August at the latest, the general election campaign would begin in earnest earlier.

When I allude to the NFL as an example, look at how the Super Bowl location is awarded. The site is decided several years out. The chosen site has years to prepare for it. With this block primary system, assuming there are six weeks (not including Puerto Rico and such), that would entail 8-9 primary elections per week. This has been proposed in the past and one argument against it is travel by candidates. For example, if one such week had primaries in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon, Oklahoma, etc., obviously candidates would have to travel widely or use surrogates and proxies. They would also strategically limit their appearances in states rich in delegates. But, isn’t that what they do now anyway? And, what is said on the campaign trail in Michigan will be heard elsewhere given media coverage and the Internet.

Who would go first, second, third and so on over each cycle would be rotated. Also, the states within these blocks could be rotated. This way, a regional candidate would not get a leg up like a regional-based primary block would produce. The parties themselves can decide what to do with the results and awarding delegates as they do now. Also, if a state had a caucus system, they could be held on their assigned date. As was mentioned earlier, some states have primaries for one party and a caucus for the other. That system could still be maintained except the date would be dictated by this system. All too often, the larger states like Pennsylvania, New York, Texas and California are late in the primary season and the nominee is already decided by time their primary rolls around. Hence, they are simply playing follow-the-leader rather than playing a more important role in deciding a candidate. Florida is the only example of a larger state holding their primary relatively early in the cycle. As far as the primary for office below the presidential level, states could retain their current system, or they can modify it to conform to this system. Some states hold their Presidential primaries early they then ask their voters to go through a second round of primary elections later in the year to determine candidates for office below the presidential level. This leads to voter fatigue which may be one of the biggest causes of low voter turnout and/or polarized voting in congressional and Senatorial primary elections.

Additionally, many states have runoff primaries if a winner does not get at least 50% of the vote. By moving up the primary calendar, then even these runoffs can be held at an earlier date. And incidentally, the runoff system makes perfect sense as one would hope that the representative of any party in any election has the backing of at least 50% of the people voting whether a general or primary election.

One problem with this, however, would be that potential candidates would have to announce their intentions to run in a primary much earlier. Additionally, the general campaign season would then be elongated. But, would that be such a bad thing? Many states hold congressional primaries in September which gives general election voters less time to evaluate a candidate. The longer the evaluation time, the better informed the voter will be. Of course, moving these primaries up, some argue, would give an incumbent a fundraising advantage. This year, Obama was attacking Romney while Romney sat on money he could not counter Obama with until after the convention. The longer primary season places a challenger at a decided disadvantage here. And should a problem occur along the way, it would give both parties a greater chance to change on the fly before electoral deadlines are met. A perfect example would be Todd Akin in Missouri. In fact, this might actually lead to moderation to a greater degree.

A lot of this begs the question as to whether political moderation is the preferred over polarization. The GOP will generally be the party of conservative principles and outlook while the Democrats will embrace the more liberal views. Between the two extremes is lots of ground and lots of potential. We will likely always have firebrand conservative and liberal legislators. In effect, they generally cancel one another out once elected. Hence, although the primary system is certainly flawed and too long, it does tend to bring candidates closer to the center. What follows is whether the center is all that great in the first place.

Of course, the whole system could be enhanced if the best and brightest of both parties were to go up against one another. That is often not the case. Instead, the process is more driven by the media than by the actual candidates. While they decry partisan rhetoric, they are the ones actually egging it on in the first place. Regardless, nominating processes are way too long currently. Some of that is due to the complexity in the party’s rules. However, a run for President should not be a 4-year effort.