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.