With the ongoing fiasco of the Iowa caucus and the “Super Tuesday” primary in Colorado looming, proposals for reforming the primary system are pouring out. But I have a better idea: Why don’t we get rid of it?
Coloradans, like other Americans, may not realize just how anomalous our system of primary elections is. With some minor exceptions, parties in all other major democracies choose their candidates internally. Like our bizarre aversion to the highly efficient metric system, and the weird way we write dates, this may be a case where American exceptionalism is counterproductive.
The 2016 nominations of the major parties are illustrative. The end result was probably the two most hated candidates in American history. Clinton’s approval ratings were stuck in the low 40s/high 30s prior to the 2016 election, while Trump’s were even worse. This result alone should raise the question of whether our way of choosing candidates is the right one.
Even in 2016’s hotly contested nominations, turnout among Republican primary voters and Democratic primary voters only equaled 14.8% and 14.4%, respectively, of eligible voters. This is only about half of the turnout in the general election, but the big problem is who turns out. Hard-core voters dominate in the primaries, forcing candidates to adopt extremely partisan positions to secure the nomination. The nominees then have to execute an “Etch a Sketch” in order to appeal to general election voters, including independents. In the age of YouTube and smartphone videos, this is becoming impossible. The extreme positions taken in the primaries are getting harder to shake.
It is not hard to believe that much of the fundamental shallowness of the American political process comes from the need to maintain attention during this lengthy process. It is also not hard to believe that the length contributes to an “election fatigue” that ultimately converts to lower voter education and turnout.
The primaries are also huge contributors to the expense of elections. Although it is tough to get figures now, when I was tracking the numbers back in 2016, Democratic and Republican candidates had raised over $1.2 billion in direct and indirect contributions for the primaries. This means that almost certainly more money was spent in the primaries than in the general election. If you want to reduce the impact of money on politics, then one way to do it is to eliminate the primaries.
The primary system has other problems. One is its sequential nature. The general election takes place on one day, but there are already concerns that the early results coming out of the East contaminate the voting in the West. This effect is multiplied in the primaries, where the “Big Mo(mentum)” plays an outsized part and there is a huge amount of tactical voting.
In 2016, Colorado voters resoundingly passed Proposition 107, mandating a presidential primary no later than March of each year, and opening primary balloting to unaffiliated voters. This was an attempt at reform, but this change does nothing to address the bigger issues with the primary system; in fact, its “open” format (without requiring party affiliation) probably makes the issues of unrepresentative and tactical voting even worse. It is time to adhere to a longstanding Colorado tradition of more radical action. It is time to consider abolishing primaries rather than just attempting to make them less awful.
What is the counter-argument? There is really only one: primaries are more democratic than smoke-filled rooms dominated by party elites. But a “democratic” vote where only the fringes show up is not much of mandate.
The argument that primaries are more representative of the will of the voters also ignores the interest parties have in nominating the electable and protecting their long-term “brand.” There are many ways of judging the mood of the electorate that don’t involve ten-months of primary votes. Randomized polling probably gives a more accurate read than self-selected primary voters.
Ultimately the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Compared to other democracies, do we really think that the American system produces better candidates and, ultimately, better officeholders? Or, for that matter, that the modern era of primary elections has produced better results than smoke-filled rooms used to produce in America? Particularly what smoke-filled rooms would produce with today’s polling, transparency and internet?
Roger Barris, an investor and entrepreneur from Evergreen, was the Libertarian Party candidate for Congress in Colorado's 2nd Congressional District in 2018.