Every presidential election cycle we hear calls for the elimination of the electoral college as the means of choosing the president. It surprises me there aren’t more calls to do away with primary elections as the means for choosing presidential candidates.
We are exactly three months away from the beginning of primary season, the Iowa Caucus, on Feb. 3. The following week is the New Hampshire primary.
Yes, for the first time since February of 2016, those otherwise irrelevant states will be the center of attention, setting the nation’s political agenda and, quite possibly, deciding who our next president will be.
Nothing against corn or granite, but put both of those states together and you’d only have the 27th-largest state in our country. Should they really play such an outsized role in the process?
We are also exactly four months away from Super Tuesday, when states from Maine to California will cast their primary ballots. Fourteen in all. And American Samoa. And Americans living oversees. It’s a big day and while the candidates by no mean need to sweep, a good showing is an absolute necessity. A bad day means a number of candidates will be out of the race even before powerful states like Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York hold their primaries.
By the time Maryland voters go to the polls on April 28, it’s probable we will already know who the Democratic presidential nominee will be. While the Republican primaries likely won’t matter — we’ll stick with “likely” here, for obvious reasons — primary elections will play a major role in who becomes the next president of the United States.
Just like always, right? But, wait, I’ve seen “Hamilton” and listened to the cast recording enough to know that there are no lyrics referencing primaries in any of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s songs.
And, of course, there’s a reason for that. Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson and anyone else who had anything to do with the founding of our nation said nothing whatsoever about primary elections. Nothing in the Constitution gives Iowa and New Hampshire their ridiculous relevance. Primaries are a relatively recent phenomenon, a fact that, even as a political science minor, never really registered with me until reading political columnist Jonah Goldberg recently.
“Primaries date back to the early 20th century, but they never mattered much until 1972, when the Democrats (with Republicans soon to follow) did something revolutionary: They voluntarily relinquished the ability to choose their own candidates," he wrote. "No other advanced democratic nation has done this (though the British have been heading in that direction, which is one reason their politics are becoming as dysfunctional as ours).”
Goldberg went on to debunk the notion that party bosses secretly making decisions in “smoke-filled rooms” gave us inferior candidates. Fair point. They came up with Abe Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and John F. Kennedy, among others. What presidents have the primaries produced? Well, suffice to say, no Lincolns, Roosevelts or Kennedys.
Primaries were a bad idea that has aged badly. In this era, the parties would be far better served by a team of computer nerds armed with data figuring out who has the best chance at the White House than allowing their voters to make the call.
First off, turnout is pretty low for primaries. While about 60 percent of registered voters came out for the general election in 2016, it was less than half that for most states’ primaries. Consider this New York Times headline from the summer of 2016: “Only 9% of America Chose Trump and Clinton as the Nominees.”
And those who do turn out are not an accurate representation of the party as a whole. They are the motivated, passionate, true believers, significantly further to the right or left than the folks from each party who stay home but will likely vote in November. That often means the candidates themselves push further from the middle to distinguish themselves.
And consider how different the primary election is from the general election — both designed with largely the same purpose, but two totally different processes.
For the most part, candidates receive proportional delegates during the primaries. So finishing fourth or fifth is still worth something. A candidate could conceivably win the nomination without winning a single state’s primary. Meanwhile, the presidential election is all-or-nothing. President Trump won roughly 49% of the vote in Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and less than 48% in Michigan — but earned 100% of the electoral votes for each.
So we’re exactly three months away from Warren, Biden, Sanders, and the rest beginning a slugfest their party hopes will identify the Democrat with the best chance to win the presidency. Problem with that is, the system is only created to identify the candidate a small percentage of nonrepresentative Democrats like the best. So the one with the best shot at beating Trump might be out of the race by the time Marylanders weigh in.
Feels like the party bosses in smoke-filled rooms — or the computer nerds — could do better.
Of course, the case can be made that more people vote “against” one candidate than “for” another. That happened in 2016 and could very well happen again in 2020, meaning the primaries we spend so much time focusing on won’t have mattered anyway. Take that, Iowa.
Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.