Strange Politics: The primaries

White House image from Public Domain Pictures

As I write this, voters in South Carolina have just finished casting their ballots in their state’s primary election, selecting who they want to be the Democratic party’s candidate to challenge President Donald Trump in the upcoming election in November. They are joining three other states that have made their candidate preferences known: Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. On Tuesday, 14 states will all hold their primaries at the same time in an event known as “Super Tuesday”, my home state of California among them.

If this sounds exhausting, well, it is. I have mentioned before that the system of presidential primary elections here in the United States is one of the major contributing factors in the ludicrous length of our presidential campaigns, typically lasting longer than a year. So, why do we have it? Why don’t all the states just hold their primaries at the same time? Why do we hold primary elections in the first place? And what is a “caucus” anyway?

Well, as with so many aspects of the Strange Politics we have here in the United States, the answer stems from history. Back on Election Day in 2016, I went over the history of U.S. presidential elections, and described how the modern method we use to choose our nation’s leader evolved gradually over time. Nobody deliberately designed the system this way; it came to be through piecemeal reforms and centuries of tradition. Today, let’s focus on how our presidential primaries work, and how they got this way.

Let the People have a Voice!

We Americans often take for granted that we get a say not only in who becomes our president, but who we get to choose from for president. This is very much NOT the case in most countries around the world. For starters, in most countries, membership in a political party isn’t something that most people have. In the European Union, for example, political party membership averages just over 4% of total voters. In contrast, 57% of Americans were either Democrats or Republicans in January of 2020. This is largely because in most countries, joining a political party means actually going to the party and applying for membership, paying membership fees for the privilege. In the United States, voters are asked their political party preference when they register to vote. Thus, even in countries that let party members choose their candidates, only a small percentage of the voting public will have a say. Some countries don’t even offer that, and instead have a handful of high-ranking party leaders pick their party’s candidates. Voters will just see it announced one day that so-and-so is the candidate for such-and-such party. Indeed, this was once how American voters found out who the presidential candidates were.

The Founding Fathers never specified how political parties should choose their candidates since, well, they didn’t originally plan for political parties to be a thing in the first place. In those early days, once the first American political parties started to form in spite of the Founders’ intentions, meetings known as “caucuses” would be held every four years between these parties’ respective Senators and Representatives in Congress to choose that year’s presidential candidates.

This system broke down in 1824, when the Democratic-Republican Party ended up running four candidates against each other, all from the same party! That year, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and the largest share of the Electoral College vote, but as nobody earned an outright majority in the Electoral College, it was up to Congress to decide, and they chose John Quincy Adams. This broke the Democratic-Republicans apart between Jackson’s and Adams’s supporters, each holding rallies in various states to drum up support for their rematch in the 1828 election. Andrew Jackson won, and shortly thereafter, he officially formed the Democratic Party. At the time, Jackson’s opponents were in a bit of disarray, forming several political parties. In 1831, one of these new parties, the Anti-Masonic Party, held a national convention in Baltimore to choose a presidential candidate that all party leaders could get behind. Soon, the other parties copied the Anti-Masons, and by the 1840’s the practice of holding a national convention to nominate a presidential candidate became standard.

This system, while more open, was still essentially a gathering of top party leaders to pick the candidate without any input from the general public. Delegates were chosen by their state’s party bosses, party bosses would often negotiate behind closed doors between ballots and make political bargains with each other, and it would often take multiple ballots by the delegates to pick a nominee. This system was rife with corruption, leading to reformers in the early 20th century calling for more transparency and for the ordinary voter to have more of a say in the process.

In 1901, Florida became the first state to experiment with having ordinary party members choose delegates to the national convention. Oregon would later be the first state to ask party members who their preferred presidential candidate was in a non-binding vote often called a “beauty contest”. A few other states would copy these reforms, but progress would be slow. One key turning point came in 1952, when Estes Kefauver made a major push to win the presidential primary elections in each of the 14 states that held them at the time in order to convince the Democratic Party leadership that he should be their party’s nominee. His campaign managed to shock everyone with a massive increase in voter turnout to these early state contests, with Sen. Kefauver winning 12 of these states. It was enough to convince President Harry Truman to step aside, but not enough to win the nomination at that year’s Democratic National Convention. The party leadership instead picked Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson to run.

From this point on, presidential primaries started to gain more attention from the national news media and the public. The next primary contest to have major consequences, also within the Democratic Party, was in 1968. That year, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to withdraw his re-election campaign after failing to get a majority of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. This game-changing decision left the field wide open to many challengers, with the strongest candidates being Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Then, just moments after winning the California primary, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. This tragedy opened the door for Vice-President Hubert Humphrey to easily win the nomination with the support of party bosses, even though he only won 2% of the vote in the primaries, a result that contributed to loud and acrimonious protests within the convention hall and violent clashes between the Chicago Police and anti-Vietnam War protesters right outside its doors.

These events led both Democrats and Republicans to look at reforming their system for choosing presidential candidates. The McGovern-Fraser Commission (on the Democratic side) and DO Commission (on the Republican side) recommended concrete measures to make the nominating process more transparent, more fair, and most importantly, more open to the public. Today, every state’s ordinary Democrat and Republican voters get to participate in the process of nominating a presidential candidate.

So how do primaries work?

Well, that depends on what state you live in and which political party you belong to. See, each state has the ability to set its own laws regarding the mechanics of how elections work within their state, and both the Democratic and Republican parties can set additional rules for their presidential primaries that their state affiliates have to follow. Not only that, but the details change every four years as state officials and national party organizations haggle and mediate over the rules.

For starters, some states have “open primaries”, where any voter can pick either party’s ballot regardless of that voter’s own party affiliation, while others have “closed primaries”, where you only get the ballot of the party you belong to. Open primaries have the advantage of allowing independent and swing voters to have a say, but they also have the disadvantage that members of the other party can sabotage the race by voting for the worst candidates. Here in California, we have a system where political parties can choose to let independent voters (and ONLY independent voters) participate in their primary; the California Democratic Party lets voters do this, while the California Republican Party does not.

Still other states don’t have primaries at all. Iowa, Nevada, and Colorado still cling to the old “caucus” method of making their presidential candidate preferences known, the only difference now being that any voter who belongs to a political party can attend that party’s caucus. In these states, the “caucus” in a particular district is held in a single place, usually a school or some other public place, that anyone who wants to participate in must physically be present in to cast their votes. The reason? Voters will vote with their feet, physically standing on opposite sides of the room as they argue the case for their preferred candidate and try to convince people to switch sides. Once all the debates are done, someone counts how many people are standing in which corner, and that is how many votes are cast for that candidate.

Believe it or not, this was the original way votes were cast in the United States and other democracies around the world, until Australia came up with the idea of a secret ballot in 1856. Over time, almost everyone realized that voting in secret was a better way to get people’s actual preferences, reducing the risk of a vote skewed by peer pressure or intimidation.

Polling booth image by Lindsay D'Addato

Thank you, Australia!

So, the votes are all counted and the presidential nominee is chosen, right? Nope!

See, it is still the delegates who attend each party’s national convention that decide who their party’s presidential candidate will be. The votes we cast in the primaries (or caucuses) are actually votes to determine who those delegates will be. All Democratic primaries, and most Republican primaries as well, apportion the delegates between the candidates based on the share of the votes that they won. The Republicans allow each state to decide for itself how to assign their delegates, so a few states still give all of their delegates to the candidate who won the most votes.

A bit indirect, but at least it ensures that each party’s candidate is the people’s choice, right? Well, there are a couple of wrinkles. The first is particular to the Democratic National Convention, while the other applies to both conventions.

Superdelegates and brokered conventions

At every Democratic National Convention, the members of the Democratic National Committee, Democrats serving in Congress or as state governors, former Democratic presidents, and other key party leaders will be in attendance, numbering a total of 771 out of the 4,750 attendees, or about 16% of the total delegates. These “superdelegates” are not beholden to any voter. They represent the party establishment, a relic of the older system of party bosses making these decisions.

They are, understandably, controversial. The irony of the “Democratic” party having such an un-democratic practice in its candidate selection process has been a huge point of contention within the party’s membership, especially after the 2016 election where the open support many of them showed for Hillary Clinton angered supporters of her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, who accused the party of rigging the nomination contest against him. As a result, several reforms were made to restrict the superdelegates, most notably by preventing them from voting on the first ballot.

Wait, FIRST ballot?

Yes, that’s the other thing about these national conventions. If no candidate has won the majority of the delegates’ votes on the first ballot cast when the convention meets, then all bets are off and the convention decides the nominee the old-fashioned way. This situation is called a “brokered convention” or “contested convention” and it has never occurred since the reforms of the 1970’s. Still, it is a theoretical possibility, and there have been many dire predictions that this year’s Democratic primary may result in one; I personally feel it is far too early to be predicting that, with 46 more states still to cast their ballots. Speaking of which…

Why do the states vote at different times? And why does Iowa get to go first?

In the first presidential elections under the new rules in the 1970’s, Iowa just coincidentally happened to be the first state to hold its caucus, because at that time its rules were so much more complex back then that they had to start early in order to get their delegates to the national convention on time. Nobody cared until 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the Iowa caucus, then went on the be the Democratic nominee, and finally won the presidency. That was also probably a coincidence, but it put Iowa on the map and made it a tradition to start the presidential campaign season in the Hawkeye State.

Of course, other states were envious of Iowa, and there was much political wrangling between states as others wanted to hold that prestigious “first-in-the-nation” primary vote. Well, Iowa beat them all by straight-up passing a law declaring they would always vote first. Period. If a state moves its primary contest to earlier in the year, Iowa, by law, must adjust its caucuses so that they stay first.

Iowa wasn’t the only state to come up with this idea. New Hampshire also has a law on its books that it will always be the first primary in the nation. This meant they wouldn’t be in conflict with Iowa’s law but would still get to have tons of media attention as candidates would be forced to fly there and campaign. Plus, it left no other state with the option to pass an “I’m first!” law without creating a paradox that could only be resolved by warping space-time.

This also prevents all the states from holding a single, national primary election. I mean, what, we let Iowa and New Hampshire vote first, but everyone else goes at the same time after them? How fair would that be?

Indeed, the fact that every state gets to set the date of its own primary means that every four years there is jockeying and competition for who votes when. California has long been one of the last states to vote, holding its primaries in June, banking on its large population being enough to keep it relevant in the nomination contest. However, this often meant the nominees had already been selected by the time California voted. So, for the 2020 election, California scheduled its contest for March 3. This triggered panic in many smaller states who saw such a massively populous state with a ton of delegates leapfrog them, leading to many choosing to hold their own primaries on the same day. The result is Super Tuesday, a day where many states all hold their primaries at once.

The trouble with Super Tuesday, and with proposals to just hold a single, nationwide primary, is that states really like the attention that candidates and the media give them when it’s their “turn”. By voting state-by-state, candidates are forced to spend some of their time and energy campaigning among the ordinary American citizens in remote, rural states like, well, like Iowa and New Hampshire. Indeed, this is arguably one of this system’s greatest strengths.

Still, you don’t want things to get too out-of-hand. In 2008, Michigan and Florida moved their primaries all the way into mid-January, pushing the primary season as early as possible, much to the frustration of both parties. After this, a new rule was instituted that no state could hold its primary before the first Tuesday in March, except for four states: Iowa and New Hampshire (of course), plus Nevada and South Carolina (to add a little diversity to the early-voter-state crowd). Any state that violated these rules would see the number of delegates they were assigned at the convention massively reduced to the point they would be drowned out by the cooperative states.

That’s how we ended up with the system Americans use to decide their presidential candidates: one where ordinary voters participate, state by state, in contests with varying rules to determine the delegates to the national convention that makes the final decision. Only then does the candidate compete against the other party for the real contest to see who will win the White House.

Brexit: An American’s Perspective

Brexit Image by Marco Verch

An Editorial

Today is the first day that the United Kingdom is an independent nation outside the European Union. Brexit, the term coined to represent the UK’s secession from the EU, took effect last night at 11 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. This comes three and a half years since the 2016 referendum we covered here on Cat Flag, where British voters chose to leave the EU. Few could have predicted just what a drawn-out mess this process would be. A process that was supposed to take two years would instead keep getting extended and extended, involve two bitter and acrimonious elections, an initial deal that was so thoroughly rejected that a new Prime Minister would have to draw up a new one from scratch, one of the most dramatic and tempestuous moments in the history of the British Parliament as MP’s came to near-blows, and even a case that had to be ruled on by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

After all of that drama, the final withdrawal itself was quite anticlimactic: a 42-second ceremony where two staffers took the Union Jack down from the European Council building.

So, what happened here? As an American who has never been to the UK, I can only speak to what all of this looks like from the viewpoint of a complete outsider. However, sometimes getting an outsider’s perspective can be useful, as when you are in the thick of something so dramatic, one can sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees. So, here’s my perspective on Brexit.


David Cameron official portrait from HM Government

After World War II, there was an idea to link the economies of France, Germany, and other European nations together so completely that a third major continental war would be materially impossible. This led to the creation of several free-trade treaties, that over time evolved into a broader free-trade area across much of Europe. In the 1970’s, as the once-mighty British Empire disintegrated, the UK joined what was known at the time as the “Common Market” in a move that was seen as a way to bolster an economy that was really feeling the impact of decolonization.

Gradually, however, this free-trade area began to evolve into something else. Within Europe’s political, business, and academic circles, the idea emerged that the nations of Europe would be stronger and better off if they integrated more closely and became a proper federation, a sort of “United States of Europe”. This would be good for big corporations, as it meant consistent and predictable laws and regulations that made it easier to do business across the continent. It was also argued that a Europe that spoke with one voice would be stronger and more able to compete with superpowers like the USA, Russia, and China. To this end, the “Common Market” evolved into the European Union, a unique political entity that is technically an international organization but in many ways functions like a national government.

Not everyone was on board with this plan, though. All across Europe, so-called “Euroskeptics” have argued against this push for a federal Europe, either because they don’t want to lose their own national identity, they don’t like or trust the EU’s policies and don’t want to see it gain more power, or they simply don’t see how these plans benefit them. In the UK, separated by the English Channel from the rest of the continent, Euroskepticism was so strong that they refused to join some of these integration projects, such as the Euro. To many British voters, particularly working-class voters, they had been the victim of a bait-and-switch, thinking they were signing on to a trade agreement and instead getting their sovereignty taken away.

Still, the EU has its supporters among the British public, particularly among big businesses and well-educated white-collar workers who see the benefits of being able to trade, travel, and move freely across Europe. Yet Britain couldn’t ignore the Euroskeptics, as they were well-organized and very vocal. The UK Independence Party was formed to campaign for a British withdrawal from the EU, and it was drawing away voters from the Conservative Party. To Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, this was a problem. So, he made a promise: he would hold a referendum on British membership in the EU. He personally supported staying in the EU, of course, but he said he would let the people have a say anyway. At the time, everyone expected this to be a mere formality; the British public would see the benefits of EU membership outweighing the drawbacks, vote to remain within the EU by a wide margin, and drop the issue for the foreseeable future.

That’s not what happened.

See, there was a huge disconnect between the UK’s political leadership, who thought the benefits of EU membership were obvious, and the working-class voters who saw it as a project of uncaring elites who didn’t listen to their concerns. I commented about this at the time. The result was so shocking that not only did Cameron immediately resign, so did the leaders of the pro-Brexit faction, as they didn’t expect to win and had no idea how to make Brexit a reality.

This was the first mistake.

Mistakes were made

Broken glass image by Tiago Padua


Those Vote Leave leaders who were campaigning for Brexit, even if they didn’t expect to win, should have had a plan. They should have stepped up when the results came in and said, “Yes, we will deliver what we promised to the British voters.” Instead, the task of actually getting the UK out fell to Theresa May, who had been an outspoken opponent of Brexit. Because that makes sense.

Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union allows EU member states to withdraw after negotiating an exit agreement with the remaining members or, barring that, automatically once two years have passed after triggering the secession process, unless everyone agrees to extend the deadline. The reason for this is that the EU has many nations around its periphery that have some sort of special agreement for cooperation on trade, travel, justice, and human rights. Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein are part of a customs union that allows free trade and travel with the EU, but this forces them to be bound by EU law in many policy areas, and as non-EU members they have no say in those laws. Countries like the Ukraine and Turkey, that seek to join the EU in the future, have special free-trade agreements that help prepare them for entry, but they have to agree to “harmonize” their laws with the EU. The EU negotiators wanted to slot the UK into one of these existing relationship categories, but all of them had some sort of deal-breaker for British negotiators, such as forcing the UK to continue allowing uncontrolled immigration from the EU or to accept the jurisdiction of EU courts.

At the same time, while the majority of British voters clearly wanted to leave the EU, the majority of British businesses clearly didn’t, and wanted to somehow preserve their access to EU free trade. At the same time, there were concerns about how all of this would affect Northern Ireland, that part of the island of Ireland that is still part of the United Kingdom but is claimed by the Republic of Ireland and spent much of the latter half of the 20th century suffering from sectarian violence over this issue. The Good Friday Agreement that ended the violence had the end of a hard border between the UK and Ireland as one of its stipulations, but without a special Brexit deal with the EU, such a hard border would have to be reinstated. Some feared that this would lead to sectarian violence returning to Northern Ireland, something that all parties agreed would be bad.

May’s government laid all of these concerns out in a document issued in February 2017 as a rough guide to their plan for the Brexit negotiations. In April, seeking to strengthen her hand by securing public support for her position from the voters, she called an early election. The result of that election was that her party actually lost seats in Parliament, giving her the literal opposite of a stronger hand. Now, she would have to negotiate with the EU with a hand tied behind her back, with no guarantee that Parliament would approve any deal she reached.

So, let’s talk about her deal, shall we? By 2018, May had a plan for Brexit: the UK would try to stay inside the EU’s free-trade area and stick to EU rules and regulations (remember, as a non-EU member, they would have no say in these rules). Several ministers in May’s government straight-up resigned after hearing this proposal. Undeterred, she brought this proposal to the EU, with the two sides adding a “backstop” plan for Northern Ireland that would basically leave it in the EU in all but name until the two sides sorted out how to handle the UK-Irish border.

This plan basically did little more than the bare minimum needed for May to say she “delivered Brexit” without actually changing anything, while still technically not even “delivering Brexit” for Northern Ireland at all. Not only was this rejected by Parliament, it was the worst defeat by Parliament of a Prime Minister’s bill in British history. Now, most people would have seen such a staggering defeat and thought, “Man, I really messed up. I should probably go back to the drawing board and try something else.” Instead, she brought her exact same deal before Parliament again, and was unsurprisingly defeated again.

Now, at this point in the process, that Article 50 two-year deadline was approaching. May knew this, and was using it as a tactic to force everyone to comply. News stories like this one warned about the supposedly horrific consequences of a Brexit without a deal, and she hoped that fear would get Parliament to back down and give her what she wanted. But the MP’s saw right through her plan, and instead voted to reject a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances, forcing her to beg the EU for more time. This would soon become a recurring pattern, as the Brexit deadline was extended again and again.

Credit where credit is due, May was persistent. She tried to put her deal before Parliament for a third time. This time, however, John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, denied her, saying long-standing Parliamentary precedent has held that one can’t keep bringing the same bill to Parliament again and again as it is a waste of Parliament’s time. To force the issue, May made some minor edits so that it would technically be a different bill. It still didn’t pass. Only now, belatedly, did she resign.

Starting over

Restart image by Anders Sandberg

The problem with May’s premiership is pretty clear. She had a particular vision of what she wanted a post-Brexit UK to look like, and was determined to make that vision come true in spite of every glaring evidence from all directions that nobody in the UK wanted it. Those who opposed Brexit wanted to somehow stop it, either with a second referendum or just straight-up ignoring the referendum results, since it technically was a non-binding vote anyway. Those who supported Brexit saw May’s plan as tantamount to a non-Brexit “Brexit”, giving in to the demands of the other EU leaders and to big business while making the UK, in Boris Johnson’s words, “an EU colony”.

Speaking of Boris Johnson, he was the one who managed to take over as Prime Minister after May. A Brexit hardliner from day one, he was disgusted by the years of pointless political wrangling and promised to get the job done. However, he was like May in one regard: he wanted to leave a no-deal Brexit on the table. By the time he took office, another deadline was looming, and Parliament wanted to ask for yet another extension.

This is where things get even more complicated, and now I have to talk about the British constitution. For generations, there has been an understanding between Parliament and the reigning monarch that he or she can only suspend Parliament “on the advice of the Prime Minister”. This is normally done for a few reasons, and one is to allow an incoming government to get its affairs in order. These sorts of traditions are recognized as being part of the UK’s “unwritten constitution”, they are just sort of how things are done.

When Johnson went to ask the Queen to suspend Parliament, however, many saw that he was suspending it for a very long time, and doing so startlingly close to the Brexit deadline. Many put two and two together and suspected he was deliberately trying to weasel out of having Parliament scrutinize his negotiations with the EU. The British supreme court agreed, and ruled his actions unconstitutional, something that is very rarely done in British law as, again, its constitution isn’t a written document like the one in the United States.

So, Parliament forced Johnson to ask for one last Brexit extension, and Johnson, seeing how this Parliament had treated May and now himself, called an early election to allow the voters to decide what direction Brexit should take. When the vote came in, his party won one of the largest landslide victories in decades. The British public clearly was on Johnson’s side and wanted Brexit done.

Get it done, Johnson did, as the final withdrawal agreement was, at last, approved by Parliament and the EU. There is still more negotiating to be done, however. Technically, the UK is now in a “transition period” that will nail down the finer details of the relationship with the EU. During this time, the UK will still act as though it is an EU member in terms of travel and trade until December 31 of this year. The Northern Ireland question was resolved with a new plan where instead of keeping it in the EU or putting up a hard border, goods going into and out of Northern Ireland will be checked at the ports, with tariffs charged only on goods destined for Ireland but not on goods that will be staying in Northern Ireland.

Brexit coin image from Deutsche Welle

The British mint is issuing 50p coins with a commemorative design in honor of Brexit

Personally, I think this transition period is something that should have been part of the agreement from the beginning. The big sticking point that was dragging on the negotiations was that May wanted to get both Brexit and a new trade deal done at the same time. I have long felt that these should have been treated as two separate issues, as Brexit is ultimately a political concern and the trade deal an economic one. Brexit was about the British people reclaiming their national sovereignty and independence, something that many felt much more strongly and passionately about than business regulations or tariffs.

Yet I’m not surprised by how dramatic the last four years have been. The EU has a vested interest in “punishing” the UK for leaving. The UK was the second-largest net contributor to the EU budget, and furthermore, the EU has to be worried that after Brexit, other countries might follow suit, threatening the EU’s very existence. At the same time, the Brexit vote was a close one, and many in the UK wanted to stay in the EU. These anti-Brexit voices were going to try to derail the process as much as possible.

Even with these factors in mind, though, it is truly embarrassing that it has taken this long for the choice of the British people to be respected. This has been a lesson in what happens when the elites of a society are so disconnected from the ordinary people that they don’t understand what the people want or need. Hopefully we Americans can learn a thing or two from this.