Change the Primary System

About Change: Overhaul the Primary System

Uwe Bott

March 2, 2008


We have been lucky this election year. An inevitable Hillary Clinton was surprised by the tsunami-like fundraising capabilities of Barack Obama and then by his ability to sway many voters with his message of change. On the Republican side too, the race was highly competitive and none of the competitors had a huge fundraising edge at first.


But this election cycle is unique and had it not been for these special circumstances, the chaotic primary schedule would have favored the candidates with the most money and allowed them to close the deal by February 5. This is so, because the fifty states participated in a frantic race to advance their primary schedule at the end of last year, each seeking to play a bigger role in the nomination process. However, the newly-established concentration of primaries on Super Tuesday clearly favors an incumbent, a candidate with huge financial support or with great name recognition. None of these three factors guarantee that such candidate also has the most creative ideas or the greatest leadership capabilities. In fact, this bunching of primaries further reduces the participatory nature of the whole process. Lesser known candidates will be unable to effectively demonstrate their innovativeness which could allow them to carefully build a base in a less concentrated primary season. Cash is king and cash will buy you the kingdom.


While we might be satisfied with this year's outcome, we should look ahead and make changes to the primary system that will truly shake up the nomination process. Here are a few ideas: Primaries should be evenly spread over four to five months from January onwards. In December before each presidential election year, both parties should hold a joint lottery. This lottery should determine the slot/date for each state during the primaries. Maybe California will be first, maybe it will be last. Maybe small states will be at the front end; maybe there will be a mixture; or maybe many delegates will be distributed right at the beginning. Every four years, the primary landscape changes completely. No state will feel aggrieved. 


The lottery system forces candidates to devise a strategy that fits the specific cycle of their election season. It will reduce the power of money (although money will always be important), and it will show us something about the capacity of different candidates to deal with and to manage uncertainty. Meanwhile prior to the lottery, candidates will have to focus on the ideas they want to share with the American people. There will be no need to camp out in Iowa and New Hampshire.


In addition, all states and both parties should use a simple proportionate system of delegate distribution. They should do so on a state-wide basis, rather district-by-district as is the case in some states today. A winner-takes-all system that is used in many states during the Republican primaries may be attractive because it mirrors the Electoral College System of the general elections (which many of us find undemocratic). However, winner-takes-all makes even less sense in the primaries because the nominee should have the popular support of his/her party. This support is necessary to build a foundation for a state-by-state strategy for candidates from both parties in the presidential race. 


Then, as much as the caucuses may be beloved in many states it is an antiquated system that raises more questions than it answers. Finally, this election cycle has made it abundantly clear that superdelegates serve no purpose other than to raise doubts about the fairness of the nomination process. The party elite has plenty of influence to help its favorites in the race through endorsements and fundraising. The party establishment should not have the power to overrule the will of the people.


Even with these reforms in place, some of us may not always care for the outcome of their party's primaries, but none of us should have misgivings about the integrity of the process. 

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