The presidential primaries are broken — here’s how we can fix them
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Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party encountered problems in the presidential primaries this election cycle: the selection of a GOP candidate who is erratic and unpresidential and a Democratic primary that was overshadowed by the possible veto of the people's choice by superdelegates. One can easily assume that both parties will be looking to revise their primary rules. Here is a suggestion that the party leaders might want to consider.

There are three problems with primaries:

The parties no longer nominate their own candidates.
They have lost control of a vital party function. As a result, the national parties are weakened, and party leadership has devolved almost solely to a gaggle of lawmakers and whoever is president. This is a personality-based system. Parties used to be known for their histories and principles — factors that provided substantive guideposts for voters' decisions. With primaries, anyone can come forward and run under the party label, and the candidates do not have to subscribe to the principles of the party. Parties are stuck with whoever survives the two-year primary season.

Voters are given an impossible job.
Voters today have to learn about a multitude of candidates in order to make an informed decision. Most do not have the time to do this. And so, news commentators and news program producers are elevated to an overly high position in the nominating process. They decide how much each candidate is to be covered, which sound bites to pick, and which campaign ads to show. And since news programs must show a profit, the more spectacular or salacious a candidate's comment or behavior, the more likely it will be dwelled upon. No candidate's full stump speech is ever shown. The whole thing is treated like a horse race with little substance.

Primaries provide an inviting stage on which demagogues can perform.
We should have learned from the southern primaries before WWII that primaries foster demagogues. Candidates with strong personalities, who are good entertainers, make exaggerated promises, and appeal to the prejudices of their audiences often win. Historians may remember Huey Long, Ben Tillman and Theodore Bilbo — it was only a matter of time before a demagogue would enter our current primaries.

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There is a better way to nominate presidential candidates, one that gives an important role to both the party and the people. It is called the pre-primary convention.

 

Here’s how it works. Each party holds an old-fashioned convention in February of the presidential election year. Delegates to this convention are chosen by state and local party organizations, preferably using caucuses. Candidates who receive at least 18 percent, say, of the delegate vote at the convention would be "endorsed," and would be the only candidates eligible to run in their party's primary.

The primaries would be much the same as they are now, except there would be no excuse for the Democratic Party to have superdelegates since the party leaders would already have a major role in vetting the candidates at their convention.

The candidate with a majority of votes in their primary, using an instant runoff ballot, would be officially nominated. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, second-place or even third-place choices would be counted. A post-primary convention would no longer be necessary.  

The delegates to the convention should be chosen at least a year beforehand. As much as possible, they should not be committed to any candidate (if there are any who have announced that early — 21 months before the election). Delegates should be chosen because they are representative of local rank-in-file party members and have good judgment, and/or as a reward for party activity.                                      

During the year before the convention is held, the already-chosen delegates would meet with prospective candidates and get to know them, ideally in small groups. Candidates might also want to hold rallies for the rank-in-file party members, to demonstrate their vote-getting abilities. A large amount of money would not be necessary; there would be no point in trying to appeal to the general public with ads when it is the already chosen delegates who have to be reached. Outstanding leaders, who otherwise would be reluctant to run through a two-year gauntlet of campaigning, could be recruited; they would only have to campaign from February to June of the election year.

At the end of the party convention, which would almost certainly reach a wide audience, each endorsed candidate would be given time to give a speech, of at least 30 minutes. This way each candidate could introduce himself or herself to a national audience. The media would no longer be the vehicle for introducing candidates.

Impressive speeches at the convention could go a long way toward winning votes in the primary. And thanks to the instant ballot, states would no longer need to vie for position — the whole nomination process would begin at the same time.

With the requirement of getting at least 18 percent of the delegate vote at the convention, at most five candidates could be endorsed by each party. Most likely it would be fewer than that. Voters would then have a reasonable chance of getting to know all the candidates, and each candidate would be given more time to expound on their views about complex issues — and more equally.

The primaries should not be run by the parties; they should be run by an independent commission that would set the dates and times for forums and make other campaign arrangements. When party leaders are in charge of arraignments, they can, for example, hinder lesser known candidates by scheduling debates infrequently and at times when few watch TV.

Also, the moderators at the forums should not be media personalities. The moderators should be skilled professionals, who would be trying to sound out the candidates about significant issues to voters rather than the superficial issues that have gained the attention of the media. In addition, professional moderators have the experience and ability to make candidates obey the rules.

The pre-primary convention system may not be perfect, but it would be much better than the present system. It would benefit both the parties and the public.

 

David RePass is professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, and specializes in elections and electoral behavior. He has published inThe American Political Science Review, the online journal The Forum and in The New York Times.


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