Editor’s Note: This post is the first part in a three-part series evaluating the current system by which the two major parties nominate their presidential candidates. Part 1 focuses on the advantages and disadvantages of the current system.
Pundits often enjoy deriding the byzantine system by which we currently nominate the major parties’ presidential candidates. Since February 1, the complex rules surrounding delegate allocation, delegate selection, the role of super delegates, and the questionable fairness of the system have all been the subject of criticism from a variety of perspectives. In this post, however, we seek not only to critique the system, but also to find the good in the current nomination rules. Contributors worked in pairs to provide one feature they feel is an advantage of the current system and one feature which stands out as a disadvantage of the current system.
Amanda Knipple and Stella Pabis
One advantage to the current primary system is that the first four states to go represent geographical, racial, and socioeconomic diversity. New Hampshire voters are lauded for their “independence” and secularism, while Iowa provides the rural and Midwestern voter’s perspective: often evangelical and with a lower socioeconomic standing. South Carolina represents a higher black and religious population. Nevada brings a higher Hispanic population, which can attempt to balance the whiteness found in Iowa and New Hampshire. These states may not be perfectly representative, but they bring in a good portion of the American electorate early on in the process.
A major disadvantage of Iowa and New Hampshire beginning the primary season is lack of diversity and size. New Hampshire is 94% white with a population of 1,330,608. Iowa is 92.1% white with a population of 3,123,899. With small delegate counts, both states have great influence over the winnowing of the field before candidates reach racially diverse and high populated states. After Iowa and New Hampshire this cycle, Huckabee, Paul, Santorum, Christie, Fiorina, and O’Malley ended/suspended their campaigns. Even though South Carolina and Nevada have higher rates of diversity, they are still relatively small. After South Carolina, Jeb Bush exited the race. The power of these small states is disproportionate and unrepresentative of the U.S. population.
Emily Radigan and Cody Ingraham
Under the current system, smaller states which are uncompetitive in the general election receive some amount of attention from candidates. If this system was not in place, it could be very likely that these states would not get any attention from presidential candidates during the election cycle. In order for candidates to secure the nomination, they must visit and pay attention to the issues of several smaller states and their congressional districts that normally don’t get national attention. The way the calendar is constructed now allows states such as New Hampshire, Nevada, Vermont, and Maine to receive attention to their specific issues.
A disadvantage of the system is the abundance of arbitrary rules (particularly on the Republican side) which only complicates the process. Differences in voter thresholds, the weight of congressional districts in different states, winner-take-all rules, and deadlines are just a few which voters across the country have agreed they can live without. These rules lead to voters in different states counting in unequal ways. Additionally, many voters do not understand or are unaware of these rules, leading to some disenfranchisement. This has led to disgruntled voters nationwide in 2016. A standardization of rules, however arbitrary, could benefit the primary system and lead to drastically different results, as well as reestablish the principle of one person, one vote.
Eric Brower and Jack Massaroni
One major advantage of the current primary system is that it allows candidates a lot of exposure to the public prior to the general election. The primary process requires candidates to usually declare their candidacy with a major party months before the first voters go to the polls. This allows candidates a long period, called the “invisible primary,” in which to pitch their ideas to voters within and outside of their party and make their case as to why they ought to be their party’s nominee. This helps voters, as they are able to get a good sense of the political leanings and background of a candidate prior to casting their vote, which helps to ensure they will make a somewhat informed decision.
One major disadvantage of the current primary system is order. Iowa and New Hampshire are the first two contests—always. These states are not representative of the whole nation, both are largely white and rural. In a vacuum this doesn’t matter, but the outcomes of these contests directly affect the rest of the race. Iowa and New Hampshire’s results begin the winnowing process early, and some candidates do not continue the race after these two states. Also, the order limits the impact of numerous states that have late primaries or caucuses. Additionally, voters in later states often do not get the same candidate attention and retail politicking as those residing in earlier states.
Aubrey Kirsch and Nick Pozzi
The current system of Presidential Nominations allows U.S. citizens to pick their ideal candidate for the job of running the country. Unlike proposed alternatives, the current system allows for winnowing to occur when candidates win and place well in contests, which also allows helps with fundraising because of their success, causing less successful candidates to drop out due to poor finishes and a lack of funds to continue their campaigns. With the slow winnowing, citizens can still vote for their main candidate, while slowly reducing the size of the field in response to candidate viability.
A disadvantage of this current system is that the media helps shapes the candidates’ chances of winning. Certain news outlets have certain political leanings, which influences how candidates are portrayed. This is often not based on the effective merit of the candidates’ proposed policies, but instead is based on horse race coverage, which interferes with voters as they cannot become informed on candidates’ policies through the media. This leads to voting based on what they learned through the outlet’s biased political coverage instead of an objective policy comparison.
Kait Krolik and Brianna Russo
An advantage of the current nominations system is the ability for candidates to campaign in states like New Hampshire and Iowa in order to kick off the primary season. New Hampshire and Iowa are small states, allowing for retail politics. Retail politics are how candidates connect with voters on a personal level, whether it be through a small town hall meeting, a rally, a meet and greet, or possibly a run in at a local diner or restaurant. These small scale interactions allow voters to feel more connected to the presidential political process and give less well known or “long shot” candidates more of a chance to resonate with voters.
A disadvantage of the current campaign rules is that our sporadic primary schedule allows for media coverage to focus primarily on the “horse race.” Nolan Hamilton, a writer for Al Jazeera, explains that horse race coverage “is when journalists focus on candidates’ polling positions rather than their policies.” Instead of focusing on policies and providing the public with a profile of the candidate, the media focus on the results of national polls. However, national polls are a poor indicator of state primary election results. This system, which is encouraged by the current primary schedule, leaves voters relying on national polls and the actions of candidates to decide who they would like to be president for the next four to eight years.
Keshawn Langhorn and JaiCe Stinton
An advantage is that some states use open primaries. An open primary allows for the incorporation of more voters who may not be registered for a specific party. Currently more people identify as Independents than they do as Republican or Democrat. If they are registered to vote this way, then an open primary welcomes these voters to select the candidate they believe is best. It has yet to be determined if this process will lead to more moderate candidates for each party, but this process promotes openness for both parties and further embracing this policy should see increased participation as a whole in the presidential nominations process.
On the other hand, a disadvantage of the current nominations process is the use of the closed primary. A closed primary allows only registered members to vote in their designated party. This excludes registered independents, about 39% of United States voters, and possibly polarizes the state platform. We believe these are two serious drawbacks because this type of system can cause more extreme candidates to appear and win rather than moderate candidates (though independents voting in each party’s primary in open states may actually be more ideologically extreme than their partisan counterparts). Also, there are numerous voters whose opinions are not heard. Finally, a closed primary gives the party too much control by allowing party leaders to pick candidates and form platform issues.
McKenzie Franck and Kevin Callanan
One advantage of our current nomination process is that candidates with less financial, party, or national support can still convince the voters of the relatively sparsely populated states of Iowa and New Hampshire to support their candidacy through retail politics. In 2012, former Senator Rick Santorum was able to capture a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses by appealing to the evangelical base of the state party, promising to visit every county in the state and holding numerous meetings with Republican caucus-goers.
One disadvantage is super delegates. Super delegates take away the voice of the Democratic primary voters. These party elites are able to choose which candidate they favored even if the voters they represent select a different candidate. An example of how this process is unfair is when Bernie Sanders won New Hampshire by a landslide, yet Hillary Clinton was still ahead of Sanders because she had gotten a lot of super delegates. This caused Bernie Sanders supporters feel like they were not represented by the votes they had casted.
Samantha Coons and Marlena Mareno
One advantage is that the first four states that begin the nomination process allow for a variety of candidates to succeed early, due to the different demographics among voters in each state. Iowa and New Hampshire, while both predominantly comprised of white voters, have distinctly different opinions on religion. New Hampshire is predominantly secular, while Iowa is predominantly evangelical. Next, South Carolina has a larger presence of African American population and Nevada has a large Latino population. While these first four states have an advantage in winnowing the candidates, they allow for a variety of demographics of voters to voice their opinion.
The polarizing characteristic of primaries poses a threat to the more moderate factions of the general American electorate. This polarization directly relates to the low turnout during the primary season. Because “Republican primary voters are viewed as too conservative, and Democratic primary voters too liberal,” extreme candidates are chosen who may not be representative of the general public. Also, activists and donors “pull candidates to the extreme” with their specific and sometimes single issues. With the increasing polarization within the parties, the American public is left to pick between two extreme candidates during the general election rather than one who better represents their values.
Be sure to stay tuned for our continued series evaluating the presidential nominations process!