A Primary Problem

By Rafael Hoffman

Republican presidential candidates, from left, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich debate take part in the Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Houston in Houston on Feb. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Neither the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, President Joseph Biden, nor the Republican frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, is viewed favorably by a majority of the nation’s voters.

According to a recent CNN/SSRS poll, both men are only favored by a little more than 30% of the general electorate, respectively, and 31% of registered voters told pollsters they preferred neither of those options. While skepticism about political leaders is not new, that stands out against 2020 when the same poll found only 5% disliking either of the final candidates or 3% in 2012 when Mitt Romney challenged former President Barak Obama.

As an incumbent, President Biden would likely be guaranteed his spot on the ticket in any event. Yet, even as Mr. Trump enjoys less than 50% support among Republican voters, pollsters say the likelihood of his claiming the nomination stems from some 30% of die-hard supporters among primary voters.

This foreboding reality has led many Americans to question whether there might be something amiss with the present nomination system.

The phenomenon is not limited to the current presidential race.

Heading into the 2022 midterm elections, forecasters predicted Republicans would likely succeed in retaking the Senate. Yet, primary elections in several key states passed over candidates with favorable odds in the general election, while victors emerged facing uphill battles with the broad electorate. Case in point was Georgia, where registered Republicans hold an advantage, where Herschel Walker’s campaign ended in defeat. In other battleground states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, primary winners who were able to win with the support of a Trump-loyal base, but failed to win over general election voters, were handily beaten.

In each of these cases, the initial field contained candidates who would have likely fared better, but could not clear primary races.

Democratic power brokers have faced their fair share of primary woes. Hillary Clinton was looked upon as a heir apparent to the 2008 presidential nomination until it was seized in a bitter contest against a freshman Senator, Barack Obama. While in 2016, Mrs. Clinton would emerge victorious, her campaign was left wounded by the insurgency of Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders. In 2018, one of the party’s Congressional leaders, Joe Crowly, was ousted by a 29-year-old bartender, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose far-left “squad” continues to challenge mainstream Democrats.

Increasingly, some feel that primaries, which typically draw low turnout and are dominated by more ideologically driven elements of the party base, have become a flawed tool for selecting candidates best suited to compete in general elections, and in some instances for governance. Moreover, some feel that the system has exacerbated an age defined by increasing political polarization.

The Ultimate Smoke-Filled Room, 19th- century engraving. The Electoral Commission held a secret session in the Supreme Court to resolve the contested 1876 presidential election in February 1877.

When the Smoke Clears

Primaries hold no fundamental place in the American system and are a relatively recent innovation.

Despite their absence from the Constitution and distain by George Washinton and other founders, political parties quickly became a permanent fixture of the nation’s political life. For most of America’s history, however, candidates were chosen at conventions or other meetings of party leadership. The method is commonly referred to as the “smoke-filled room” approach, playing on the clubby image of party bosses sitting around an oak table smoking cigars as they select candidates. This method was less democratic, but it was out of that system that most of America’s vaunted political leaders emerged.

“The smoke-filled rooms had a moderating effect,” said Nicholas Jacobs, professor of political science at Colby College in Maine. “We live in a time when elites are to be scorned, but the fact is that they have a finger on the pulse in an institutionally responsible way. The old system got you John Kennedy, who participated in the least number of primaries, and Franklin Roosevelt. There’s plenty of evidence that the decisions made in these rooms produced candidates with broad appeal to the party and to the electorate.” 

Effective though it was in maintaining institutional discipline and selecting qualified candidates, as party machines caught the ire of early 20th- century progressives, calls for a more democratic system led to the introduction of primaries in many states. The system percolated throughout the 20th century and more party organizations began to use primaries to select congressional candidates. Presidential primaries existed in many states, but they remained a bellwether of popular opinion, to be accepted or rejected once delegates met at the convention hall.

In 1968, the smoke-filled rooms clashed with the radicalism born of that era.

Facing unpopularity over his leadership on the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson polling showed that he was likely to place third in early Democratic primary contests. Wanting to avoid an embarrassing loss, Johnson dropped out of the race. The contest was further jolted by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, who had been a leading candidate for the nomination. While anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy arrived at the ill-fated Chicago convention with the highest number of primary selected delegates, Hubert Humphrey, who opted to entirely skip primary votes, retained support from party insiders. Humphrey won the nomination, but his victory was marred by acrimonious fighting on the convention floor and violent rioting outside by anti-war protesters. One of several factors blamed for Humphrey’s sizable defeat to Richard Nixon was that his candidacy was out of line with the increasingly anti-war stance of many in his own party.

With the Democratic Party left in disarray, its leaders tasked a commission to reform its nominating process and make national standards, curbing the autonomy of powerful state and local party organizations. The reforms which permanently instituted primaries as largely binding ultimately took the name of the commission’s two main leaders, Senator George McGovern and Congressman Donald Fraser.

Through the early 1970s Republican leaders began to embrace the primary system. Parties have tried minor tweaks, but primary voters have had the last say in who runs for office for close to 50 years.

“It was seen as a democratizing move, to open things up and let people have a say,” said John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Since then, the debate’s gone back and forth a little. In ’72 the Democrats said that they opened things up and got McGovern who was out of touch and too liberal. There’s been a push for ways for the parties to have more of a say, but at this point primaries are extremely widespread.”

Protestors congregate on the sidewalk during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Populist Spring

The switch to primaries has had pronounced effects on who would mold the political map. These trends were most pronounced on the presidential scene. George H.W. Bush was the favorite of the GOP elite, but when he was bested by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primaries, the party took a decidedly rightward turn. Bill Clinton was seen as an outsider and his victory would move Democrats towards a more moderate stance than the liberalism that defined the party over the two decades prior.

Yet, voter choices that moved towards right, left, or center in the first decades of reliance on primaries remained modest, keeping parties and political dialogue on a relatively steady and predictable trajectory.

“The party gatekeepers don’t really go away,” said Professor Jacobs. “Endorsements still matter, and big donors still have a say, but they all only get one vote.”

Another way parties continued to exert influence was in candidate recruitment.

Yet, their hold weakened dramatically in 2008, with Mr. Obama’s victory, an insurgent in his party. The effect was sharper in the GOP, where the emergence of the Tea Party faction sought to assert its hardline opposition to the Obama agenda by filling Republican seats with its loyalists, threatening to mobilize its base to oust opponents in primaries. One of their highest-profile successes was when former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was beaten by a little-known Tea Party challenger, Dave Brat.

It was around this time that “primary” first entered into use as a verb and some began to raise alarms that the system was playing a significant role in political polarization.

A set of other changes played a role as well. A combination of legislation and a Supreme Court decision placed limits on donations to parties, which had been the main source of funding for candidates, but not to individual campaigns. This led to the emergence of powerful PACs (political action committees) who bankroll candidates, irrespective of party leaders’ preferences. At around the same time, internet-based crowdfunding gave populist candidates on the left and right a new tool to succeed without big-ticket donors.

“Partially in response to Obama’s administration, a bunch of ideological activist groups starting with the Tea Party, and the super PACs that formed after the Supreme Court’s decision, started pumping money into primary races,” said Richard Barton, professor at the Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “These are well organized groups who see that they can capitalize on low-turnout elections.”

It did not take long for similar winds to blow on the left where an increasing number of moderate Democrats faced challenges from progressives.

Another major culprit many blamed for polarization was the advent of cable and internet-based news. In addition to inundating more of the electorate with the rhetoric of fired up political talk show hosts, these phenomena injected national debates into what could have otherwise been races focused on local concerns.

“There’s no denying that changes external to the parties started to matter in a big way,” said Professor Jacobs. “The media causes a lot of fragmentation. Local news declines and cable and the internet give candidates that might not have party backing unlimited cheap coverage.”

In 2016, this germinating new era in primaries reached full bloom. Bernie Sander’s run left many thinking that Mrs. Clinton would be supplanted by an upstart socialist who was not even a member of the Democratic Party. Far more than that, leading up to primaries, few Republican powerbrokers took the Trump campaign seriously, let alone believed it could beat a field of traditional candidates. When Mr. Trump began to rack up state after state, it became clear that a new epoch had dawned, leaving the party establishment scrambling to adjust.

“[The year] 2016 didn’t show so much about how far left or right candidates could now be, as how much more possible it was to have outsider candidates. Donald Trump is extraordinary for never having served in elected office before, but we started to see this at lower levels also,” said Dr. Fortier.

Delegates attending the 1956 Republican National Convention held at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, California, 20-23rd August 1956. (Phil Burchman/Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

“Democratization does not always yield democracy”

This new landscape set experts dissecting the impact empowered primaries have had on American political life.

“We like to think that shifting away from smoke-filled rooms was more democratic, but who was really being empowered? Activists, interest groups, and academics were the ones who got more power, and that led to more polarization,” said Professor Jacobs. “Ultimately the people who are really invested in politics, who can’t imagine not tweeting about current events, these are the people who vote in primary elections, and they represent a sliver of the population. The result is that power over who gets nominated shifts from the local party level to special-interest groups based in Washington, DC.”

While “democratization” is often treated as an unmitigated blessing in political rhetoric, populism, and other effects of leaving too much power in the hands of the electorate, was very high on the list of concerns for America’s founding fathers. Many nuances of the Constitution and original features of elections like limited franchise, presidential selection in the hands of state legislatures, and electors, were attempts to temper democracy. 

Wresting the nomination process from party elites, Professor Jacobs felt, runs contrary to some of the safeguards placed on American democracy, yielding unwanted results for much of the populace.

“Parties are not mentioned in the Constitution, but in some respects, they serve to insulate governance from public opinion. When parties emerged, they became an attempt to link mass politics with state and national capitols,” he said. “The system we have now gives the mirage of choice in the final selection of candidates, but it’s limited the extent to which this represents the people’s will. Democratization does not always yield democracy.”  

The gap between general election voters and the small group that votes in primaries has led to a perception that the system is failing to produce truly representative candidates. In 2016, a Pew survey found that only 35% of voters felt primaries were a good method for selecting candidates. A recent Pew poll showed that while Mr. Trump is far ahead in primary voter polls, he is only the preferred candidate of about a third of the GOP’s general election voters.

“The primaries are not producing candidates most party voters are happy with. Just because they clearly prefer one candidate over the other doesn’t not mean they are satisfied,” said Professor Barton. “The smoke-filled rooms did a better job of nominating more representative candidates than primaries have in the post-Obama era. Now you have the party establishment challenged by ideologically driven groups often focused on one policy issue. They’re using candidates to get their preferred outcome, but don’t care about the health or success of the party.”

Many contest the bad rap primaries are getting in some circles. Some evidence suggests that public dissatisfaction with candidates fits into a broader narrative of displeasure with the political scene. In recent elections, despite minority support for primary winners, in most instances partisan voters coalesced around the nominee.

“I think primaries have produced candidates representative of party voters’ wishes…with polarization and COVID at its height, 2020 saw record turnout,” said Dr. Fortier. “There are instances when people might have reservations about candidates, but they tend to be liked by most of the party, and most of the party’s voters are clearly turned off by the opposing candidate. In a lot of these cases where people blame primaries for polarization and bad candidates, it seems they are wishing for something that is hard to imagine existing in reality.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., speaks at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In Search of a Moderating Effect

Amid growing criticism of primaries, some states implemented measures that their proponents argue will bring a moderating influence.

One aspect of this debate is whether primaries should be “closed,” in which only party members are allowed to vote, or open to all who want to vote on who should be the candidate for one party or the other.

While some tout the results of the “open” system, critics see it as undermining the purpose of the party.

“Parties have value in that they help people make sense of the world views of the right and left. The party becomes an entity, and you choose to join it because you align with its ideals. Primaries are an internal process of how a party selects its candidate. If you open that up, what you are basically saying is that we should get rid of parties,” said Frank DeVito, an attorney who has written on primary issues. “I understand the argument that allowing more independents to vote could improve candidate electability, but my message to them would be, join the party that most suits your beliefs and make your voice heard.” 

Other reforms being tried in several states include ranked choice voting, where voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets 50% support, the lowest scoring candidates are eliminated, and their voters are re-allocated to their second choice. That process continues until a candidate gets a majority. Advocates say this is a road to candidates who draw broader bases of support. Opponents object to the possibility of a candidate — who was not the first choice of most voters — winning.

Another is “top two,” under which non-partisan primaries are held. The candidates who garner the first and second largest tally advance and face each other in the general election. A key argument for this system is that it encourages candidates to gear their campaigns towards the center of the electorate rather than competing for ideological purity against co-partisans.

Professor Barton, an advocate of non-partisan primaries, said the system yields results similar to when party leaders called the shots, but through a more democratic vehicle.

“We found that parties got their preferred candidates,” he said. “When the opposition comes from all different directions, that pushes candidates towards the center.”

Another argument for these reforms is that more open primaries could drive larger turnout, presumably selecting candidates with broader appeal.

“None of this is to say that we don’t have real division. We do, and politics will always look nasty,” said Professor Barton. “Primary reform will not change that, but it can turn back polarization to where it was in the 1990s. People were divided then too, but they weren’t talking about the demise of American democracy.”

Yet, there are contrary data on these systems, some of which show they would have little impact. Some of those arguing for changes have looked for direct ways of returning more power to party leaders using mechanisms like national committees to screen candidates prior to primaries. “A little more elite control over the organization is a good thing,” said Professor Jacobs. “We think of parties as publicly owned, but really they’re more like the utility company; they don’t let the users make decisions.”

Battle of Interests

Yet there remains much disagreement over whether giving party leaders more of a say or reforming the system to tilt towards their preferred outcomes is desirable. Critics point to the fact that primary results that differ from the preferences of power brokers reveal a gap in understanding between them and the rank-and-file.

“Old school party bosses start to get out of touch with the actual voters,” said Dr. Fortier. “Donald Trump brought some things that some people in the party didn’t like, but on immigration, for instance, his views were much more consistent with the voters than where the party leaders were. His views were much more representative.”

It is no coincidence that those searching for ways to reintroduce smoke-filled rooms, in fact or result, largely come from think-tanks whose globalist approach to immigration and trade and interventionalist foreign policy posture was challenged by populist revolts in different forms on left and right.

Campaigns by organizations like the Brookings Institute to give moderate candidates a leg up in the nominating process might very well yield a political map where politicians of both parties are closer to each other on immigration, opposition to trade barriers, and a global U.S. military presence — which is what roughly existed until 2016. Yet, some would argue that is what produced what critics have called the “Washington Uniparty,” derided by populists as reflecting the views of coastal elites, and not those of most voters.

Mr. DeVito said that he acknowledges the advantage of giving parties more say in selecting candidates who are highly qualified and have a broad appeal in elections, but that his experience with leaders makes him wary of giving them more power.

“In theory, I like structure and that people who are most invested in the party should represent it,” he said. “You would hope that these elites who are the most active members would represent a wide array of interests within the base, but my own experience has been that the ones we have now are not in touch with the rank-and-file.”

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