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Primary Exhaustion | Insight

The Democrats' decision to change up the primary calendar is a welcome change. But primaries need bigger reforms.

The Briefing: Democrats consider changing the primary schedule.

  • What's happening?
    • The Democratic National Committee plans to take applications from states wanting to host the earliest primary contests
    • Traditional early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire could lose their coveted positions
    • Securing an early spot in the calendar could come with national prestige and attention
  • Why is the DNC doing this?
    • Iowa and New Hampshire are increasingly seen as unrepresentative of the contemporary Democratic voter base
    • They seem to think that more racially or socioeconomically diverse states would put more electable candidates on track to win, earlier
    • It's also seen as a gesture of respect to the demographic groups that form the backbone of the party

The Big Question: Will this fix primaries?

After one especially memorable Republican primary election in 2016, and two dramatic Democratic primary elections both then and in 2020, I’m pretty sick of the modern presidential primary process.

There are countless reasons to be frustrated but a couple are worth mentioning. First, the primary season is obscenely long. Hopefuls often announce their candidacies close to a year before the first primary vote is even cast. The media absolutely devours the races, extensively covering the candidates and putting on a host of “debates” that usually treat issues superficially and aim to get the sparks flying between candidates. There’s no particularly good reason to think that this process elevates the public debate, certainly no more than if it were only a few months in length.

I also despise the way that the rules of the primary game generate all kinds of bizarre incentives. There’s a whole strategy to which states in the extended primary schedule a candidate focuses on, which leads candidates to take positions that might appeal to a narrower portion of the electorate. Moreover, if you win the right early states, you’ve got momentum going into the later ones, so states that have large populations might just become irrelevant by the time the clock gets around to them. At the same time, candidates with almost no shot at winning can hang around as long as they keep raising money, which muddles the whole selection process.

What the DNC is doing right now is supposed to help with that last problem. Fronting states that are more representative of the kinds of voters Democrats need to win could theoretically lead to more decisive outcomes. The logic is pretty clear: a candidate who wins Iowa and New Hampshire but has no cachet among Black voters (who are decisive in just about every diverse state’s Democratic primary) might just be able to hang in the race longer than he or she really should. If it’s clearer earlier which candidate can really mobilize the big-tent Democratic coalition, then the whole process should be faster, cheaper, and cleaner.

But just how much will this rule change actually improve the process?

The Theory: Probably not much.

The DNC’s rule change is significant, but it’s ultimately fairly narrow in scope. Indeed, it’s the structure of the primary system that’s the problem.

Some scholars, like Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book How Democracies Die, argue that the primary system itself has made democracy worse by reducing party officials’ say over who the party nominates. Primaries, they assert, incentivize candidates to appeal to a party’s base voters: that is, those most passionate and likeliest to turn out for a party primary vote. This, they argue, incentivizes political extremism and demagoguery.

The 2016 Republican primary certainly suggests Levitsky and Ziblatt are onto something. Donald Trump was nothing if not a demagogue who crushed the party establishment. And while Democrats ended up nominating Joe Biden in 2020, the DNC drastically lowered the barriers to entry in the primary in response to the allegation that the 2016 primary was insufficiently democratic. More than 20 candidates declared and most of them took positions—genuinely held or otherwise—well to the left of the median American voter on guns, healthcare, and immigration. A combination of a media interested in stirring up controversy, motivated Democratic donors who gave money to a wide range of candidates, and the sheer length of the primary campaign kept the sparks flying between too many candidates months longer than it should have.

While there’s no good reason—moral or strategic—not to have early primaries be demographically more like the nation at large (or the Democratic coalition), it doesn’t seem plausible that doing so will facilitate much faster, cheaper, and confidence-inspiring primary elections. Voters who tend not to turn out for primaries aren’t likely to alter their behavior based on schedule changes. Unless parties compress the year-long time frame, the primaries will remain an embarrassing game of scrambling for media attention. And in the case of the Democratic Party in particular, all future primaries will be as crowded and clownish as they were in 2020 unless the party increases the standards candidates have to meet to enter the race.

While the schedule changes might facilitate a faster and more decisive race under certain conditions), they won’t fix the broader rotten-ness of the presidential primary system.

The Takeaway: It’s a start.

That said, I’m not sure returning to the smoke-filled rooms of kingmaker party officials is the way to go.

Even if in an ideal world it were preferable for parties to choose candidates, it’s not particularly feasible today. One only needs to imagine how progressive democrats would have reacted had Bernie Sanders been barred from participating in the 2020 primary, or what the Republican base would do if the GOP barred Trump from participating in the 2024 Republican primary. Parties would need to be willing to risk angering—potentially even losing—significant chunks of their most dedicated voters.

What that means is that parties—if they’re actually interested in improving American elections—need to think bigger about how they select their candidates. Altering the schedule of primaries to be more reflective of the nation’s demographics is a good start, but there’s a long way to go.

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