We’re Better at Picking Oscar Nominees Than Presidential Contenders

Everyone Hates the Way American Primaries Work. Can France or Hollywood Help Fix Them?

In 1912, former President Teddy Roosevelt came out of retirement to seek the Republican nomination for a third term. But rather than supporting the standard way of selecting a candidate at the time—allowing party bosses to pick one—he demanded a different approach. “Let the people rule,” he thundered, inspiring the very first presidential primary elections. A half-century later, in 1968, after Hubert Humphrey was nominated by the Democrats even though he didn’t win any primaries, our current system of primaries and caucuses took shape as another step forward in democratization.

But today, with a new campaign season upon us, our presidential primaries don’t seem to meet anyone’s standards for popular rule. Tiny, unrepresentative states have outsized power. Billionaires and their money are often the most important factors in the contests. Media coverage rewards extremist rhetoric and partisanship, and only a tiny fraction of American voters end up having a say in the presidential nomination process.

In advance of a January 15 Zócalo event, “Do Primaries Really Make Presidential Elections More Democratic?,” we asked scholars, pundits, and political practitioners: How should we improve the presidential nominating process?

Krist Novoselic

Follow the French on the ‘firehouse primary’

In our country, Republican and Democratic parties resemble the old East Germany in their dependence on stagnant rules and state control for their presidential nominations. To shake things up, our two major parties need to take the cue of innovation, private initiative, and free association from the French Socialist party.

In a few weeks, many Americans will start voting in primary elections. In most states, taxpayers fund publicly administered nominations for the two state parties. Yet in states like Iowa, Washington, and a few others, parties still act like the private groups they are supposed to be and conduct their nominations through a caucus process—which, unfortunately, is archaic and time-consuming.

Don’t get me wrong on caucuses. We need more local, grassroots, and convenient opportunities for people to engage presidential election nominations—if not party nominations on all levels. But there is a way to do it better.

In 2012, the French Socialist Party held its own public primaries for its presidential nominations. Voters who wanted to affiliate with the party went to their local privately organized poll, paid 1 euro, then voted for their favorite candidate. After all the votes were counted nationally, there was no majority winner. So the party organized another round of voting two weeks later where the top two vote-getters faced off. In the end—voilà!—the winner, François Hollande, went on to the public election ballot as nominee to face candidates from other parties. (He won the election.)

This kind of privately organized system is used in some places in the United States for local party nominations. It is called an “unassembled caucus” or “firehouse primary.” The idea is for the private parties to engage their communities by hosting these events. Instead of a caucus ritual—which can take hours of meetings—voters come in, sign in, vote for their favorite candidate, then split. And just like they currently do in public primaries, the parties could then take the vote totals to allocate delegates, proportionally, to the conventions.

Crowdfunding has become the newest form of political association for the 21st century. Social networking is bringing people together in new ways. Nevertheless, politics really are local, and the firehouse primary is a great way for political groups to reconnect with real people. Nothing captures the political imagination of Americans like the presidential election.

Krist Novoselic is chair of the election reform group FairVote, and is also active in the Washington State Grange and the United States Open Source Party. He is best known as bassist for the rock group Nirvana.

Dianne Bystrom

Boost participation

Despite its many flaws, the modern presidential selection process is more democratic than what was in place prior to the reforms initiated after the 1968 general election. Those reforms took control away from the two major political parties and placed more responsibility on voters in state primaries and caucuses to choose delegates to the national nominating conventions.

Still, the two major political parties retain some control over the presidential primary calendar and have taken steps to make the process more representative in recent years. In response to concerns over two small, homogenous states—Iowa and New Hampshire—voting first, South Carolina and Nevada were added to the early calendar in 2008 for more regional and racial diversity. And, in response to states that pushed their primaries into February and January against national party rules in 2008 and 2012, the penalties for states that jumped the line in this way were increased for 2016. (Those penalties involve the loss of delegates for the offending state.)

As a result of these steps, the presidential calendar is starting later than usual this year, with the Iowa Caucus set for February 1.

Starting the presidential selection process in smaller states arguably provides opportunities for lesser-known, not-as-well-funded candidates to emerge as contenders. Starting the process in more populous states, in regionally grouped primaries or in one national primary, would provide even more advantages for candidates funded by Super PACs and increase the money spent on presidential campaigns.

Given the constraints of our current process, which has the support of the two major political parties and their candidates, and without meaningful campaign finance reform, the best way to improve the selection of presidential candidates would be to increase the number of voters participating in the primary and general elections. We can do this through such initiatives as online voter registration, expanded opportunities for early voting, and efforts to educate and engage underrepresented youth and minority citizens.

Dianne Bystrom is the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. She is a frequent commentator on politics for the media; has contributed to 19 books; and works to engage women, youth, and minorities in the political process.

Jessica Levinson

Rotate states

Who died and made the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire the gatekeepers of the presidency? For almost four decades, the voters of both states have had an outsized importance when it comes to picking the next leader of the free world.

Iowa’s caucuses are famously the first in the nation, and this year’s caucuses fall on February 1. New Hampshire holds the nation’s first primary on February 9. While caucuses are run by state parties, and primaries are run by state governments, the goal is the same—to choose a presidential nominee.

Some level of success in Iowa and New Hampshire is all but necessary to progress in the presidential nomination process. Resounding defeat in these states is often the death knell for presidential hopefuls. Yet the voters of both states do not represent the voters of the country. They are, among other things, older and whiter. The voters of more diverse states like California, Texas, and Arizona should not be afterthoughts.

How can we fix the current system?

We could implement a rotating system so that the voters of different states have opportunities to play more important roles in picking their party’s presidential nominee. This could involve dividing the states by regions or by alphabetical sets of four, then rotating the region or set of states that is first to hold primaries or caucuses each election.
Either of these options would ensure that the voters of states large and small, diverse and less diverse, can make their voices heard when choosing the next president.

Jessica Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School, where she studies election laws and political reform issues. She also serves as the president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

Thad Kousser

Pick a president the way we pick the Oscars

November general elections are, for most voters these days, a Star Wars-type battle between good and evil. Your candidate represents the Resistance, while the opposing side is the First Order. Your party brings a New Hope for the country, pitted against the Evil Empire. You defend the Republic, battling against the, uh, Trade Federation.

OK, Star Wars got a bit confusing, but the basic idea is that in November, most of us love our side and hate the other. The way we vote right now works perfectly for this Manichean struggle. We cast a single vote for our number one candidate and, by default, this ranks all other candidates in equal last place. That’s fine when there is only one major opponent, especially when he or she is on the dark side.

But choosing in a presidential primary is more like picking your favorite movie. I loved the Force Awakens, and The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road were pretty great, too. But Mortdecai and Ted 2, what a waste of my $18.50! We often like, to varying degrees, several of the candidates running for our party’s nomination, but we can be staunchly opposed to a few of them.

What we need—especially in a primary like this year’s GOP contest—is a voting system that gives voice to all of a voter’s preferences, and thus ensures that the nominee is a candidate whom everyone in a party can support. We need a system that allows us to record not only our top pick, but also to say which other candidates we can live with and which ones we staunchly oppose.

Fortunately, to reform the way we run primaries, we do not need to adopt some obscure and unproven voting system. We could move to “ranked-choice voting,” the system that voters in San Francisco and Oakland already use to pick their mayors and that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences uses to select each year’s Best Picture.

Here’s how it works. Instead of choosing only one candidate, you rank the candidates in the order you prefer. If hardly anyone else likes your first choice, your vote goes to your number two, until we get a candidate who appears near the top of a majority of voters’ dance cards.

Here’s the problem that moving to ranked choice voting in presidential primaries would solve. Right now, we can pick a president who is only supported by a plurality of a minority. Primaries give a small portion of the electorate the chance to set the stage for November, selecting nominees who can win with only a plurality rather than a majority of that fraction of America’s voters. Especially in states with winner-take-all primaries, this is a real worry.

Consider the case of Donald J. Trump in California, where I live. According to the Field Poll, Trump is now running neck-and-neck with Ted Cruz to capture the nation’s richest treasure trove of GOP delegates. But the poll also shows that nearly half of all Republican voters in California have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. When voters were asked who their second choice was, Trump fell far behind, a polarizing figure even within his own party.

But the problem with the voting system we have now is that it doesn’t ask us for our second choice. If California’s primary were held today, Donald Trump might finish first with only a quarter of the vote, and yet capture just about every delegate the state has to offer. If we reformed this system to let voters give their rankings, all of those in the anybody-but-Trump camp could rank their favored candidate first, but as their lower rankings get counted, their support would coalesce around a single candidate with majority support.

In today’s two-party general elections, with their battles between the light side and dark side of the Force, switching to ranked choice voting wouldn’t change much in the short term (though it could allow a third party to gather strength in the future). In a primary with a crowded field of candidates whom some voters love and some love to hate, giving voters a louder voice by letting them rank candidates would give the consensus choice the power to vanquish an evil emperor.

Thad Kousser is a professor of political science at UC San Diego and co-author of The Logic of American Politics.

Patrick Dorinson

With Different States, Fewer Polls and Debates

With presidential elections, it seems that as soon as the votes for the midterms are cast, we begin what has now become a two-year slog to determine the next president. While I don’t expect that to change, here are five suggestions to improve the process.

1. Farewell, Iowa and New Hampshire!

Changes to the primary calendar are long overdue. Leaders of both parties should meet and agree to have four regional primaries with multiple states rotated every four years. I would suggest the regions be Northeast, South, Midwest, and West.

That would at least force candidates to campaign on broader issues and we could stop pandering to ethanol concerns in Iowa and appealing to “flinty” New Englanders in New Hampshire.

2. Stop the endless polls

Winston Churchill once said, “Nothing is more dangerous than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll always felling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature.” We poll everything in this country, and when it comes to elections, everyday brings a new poll. I am not usually in favor of banning things, but when it comes to polls, I would make an exception.

3. Let’s have fewer “debates”

The so-called debates have been reduced to verbal NASCAR races. People tune in to see the wrecks and who will make a gaffe. They rarely elucidate issues and are just a way for candidates to give portions of their stump speeches to a national audience.

4. Stop the ESPN-style coverage of elections

The highbrow media complain about lack of substance on the campaign trail, and yet they cover politics as if it were a sporting event on ESPN. There is the “pre-game” coverage where a panel of so-called experts and out-of-work political consultants set up the debate. Then there is the “post-game” analysis where these same geniuses pick the winners and losers.

Message to the media execs in Manhattan: Don’t complain about substance when you emphasize and cover the trivial.

5. Reconsider the mother’s milk of politics

The onetime California Assembly Speaker Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh said, “Money is the mother milk of politics.”

That is still true today, but now we have billionaire donors who spend their millions on their favorite candidates through Super PACS. But just because one has been successful in business doesn’t mean that they can pick candidates. (See Jeb Bush.) The current bunch of super donors reminds me of NFL owners. They are as clueless about campaigns as the owners are of football.

We need smarter donors!

But what’s the use of these suggestions? Unfortunately, the system will never change. If anything, with the advent of ever-newer forms of communication and technology, it will only get worse. That’s what happens when a republic becomes an empire where the powerful give the people “bread and circuses” to hide the decline they are responsible for.

Just ask the Romans.

Patrick Dorinson is a political commentator and host of The Cowboy Libertarian Radio Show.