A Democratic Primary
It’s time to give all voters a voice and have a national primary.
New Hampshire’s Londonderry Middle School is an unlikely place to find Chuck Norris. The martial arts champion learned his fighting skills in Asia, made his money in Hollywood, and calls Texas home. Yet there Norris was this past January, sharing the small auditorium stage with the Londonderry High School jazz band “Funkpod,” a variety of flannel-clad local officials, and the winner of that week’s Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, Mike Huckabee.
Sitting at a table in the back of the room and nursing a Dunkin Donuts coffee, I traded rumors and theories about the coming New Hampshire primary with the gathered press corps. We had a lengthy debate over who Bruce Lee would endorse for president if he were alive (Barack Obama was the consensus choice). I was in politico heaven. Nowhere else can you get this close to the presidential candidates. Nowhere else can you so easily fall in with the traveling band of journalists, pundits, operatives, and activists who influence and shape the contest to be the next leader of the free world. Nowhere else can you see someone aspiring to be the nation’s commander-in-chief sharing the stage with a B-list action hero and jamming with a bunch of teenagers.
I’ve been going to New Hampshire primaries in various capacities for 16 years. But, despite my deep fondness for the event, I’ve come to realize that the New Hampshire presidential primary must end. The entire system of choosing our presidential nominees is confusing, undemocratic, and fundamentally flawed. Early primaries in small states unrepresentative of the larger population have an outsized effect on the outcome. Peculiar local issues often dominate the debate and tie the hands of a future president. As states compete to be more relevant in the selection of the party nominees, the process has become hyper-front-loaded: This year, more than 20 states held their primaries on February 5, the first day of the normal nominating calendar, allocating more than half of all Democratic delegates and 41 percent of Republican ones. Once a candidate secures enough delegates to become the nominee, they will have to endure an increasingly longer interregnum period during which they are in political purgatory as the “presumptive nominee,” unable to receive federal matching funds to power their campaigns. This, in turn, is just part of the reason that the entire federal matching funds program has effectively fallen apart and the amounts of money raised during this cycle by the most competitive candidates have reached nine figures. Meanwhile, the conventions are nothing more than an extended political commercial devoid of any real deliberation. Indeed, the failure of the Democratic National Committee to prevent Florida and Michigan from moving up their state’s nominating contests by stripping these states of their delegates is further proof of the irrelevance of the conventions and the entire delegate selection process.
Of course, as I write this in late January, both the Democratic and Republican contests look like they not only could go to the final primaries in June, but even last until the conventions themselves. But these are unique cases, unlikely to be repeated. Over the past three decades, presidential nominating contests have gone to the end of the season only three times–1972 and 1984 for the Democrats, 1976 for the Republicans–and none of these occurred in the current political and media environment. More often than not, they are over before most people vote or even notice they’ve begun.
The simplest and most direct way to correct the worst elements of the current system would be to eliminate the entire charade of electing delegates to the conventions. Instead, we should hold one national primary, on one day, for both parties.
The national primary is not a new idea. It is a Progressive Era innovation first proposed by Alabama Congressman Richard Hobson in 1911 and endorsed by political science-professor-turned-president Woodrow Wilson. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt proposed it to William Howard Taft to settle which of them would be the Republican nominee; Taft, the incumbent, refused. From that time until 1979, the national primary has been put forward in Congress 126 times by a determined, dedicated, and tiny band of reformers, including Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.), the last big proponent of the idea.
But despite its small amount of support on Capitol Hill, the national primary has garnered majority support in nationwide polls. From 1952 until 1988, Gallup consistently polled Americans on their support for various nominating process reforms; the national primary always had wide support and never had opposition in excess of 27 percent. More recently, a 2007 New York Times poll found that 72 percent of Americans favored a single day for all primaries.
The logic behind the national primary has not changed in its hundred-year history. “A people who are qualified to vote for candidates at the general election are likewise qualified to vote for candidates at the primary election,” wrote Senator George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska, in 1923. “It requires no more intelligence.” That voters want their votes to count and their voices to be heard is a simple and direct notion, but one that, today, is rarely borne out by the primary process. Take 2000, the last time neither party had an incumbent presidential candidate. According to political scientist Rhodes Cook, 43.5 percent of all those who voted in primaries or participated in caucuses were “rubber-stampers” from late-voting states with no role at all in deciding who their party’s nominee would be; 43.6 percent were “confirmers” who merely ratified the front–runner who emerged from the first round of states; and just 12.9 percent of voters–about four million people in both parties–were the “kingmakers” in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire who actually decided who would be their party’s nominee. With such little influence, it’s no wonder that since 1972, only about one-third of all eligible voters have participated in the nominating process in any given election year.
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