(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)


1968. Civil unrest. The Vietnam War. That year made its mark in the history books, not only because of all of the issues roiling the political system along, sparking activity and reflecting distrust in the government but also because it culminated in a very bitter Democratic presidential nominating convention. The convention would ultimately produce Hubert Humphrey as a nominee. It would also lead to a change in the rules governing the ways in which delegates were selected. Fifty years later, we are saddled with a complicated system that does not necessarily result in candidates with whom the general public resonates.  Not only might our system be ripe for reform, but the possibility of a national primary might provide the right response.

Nominating processes have continued to evolve over the course of the country’s history.  Though the use of a convention as a means to open the process up from backroom politics first occurred in 1832, it became a more direct process in the early 1900s during the Progressive movement.   Following the 1968 convention, the reforms put into place for the 1972 election by the McGovern-Fraser Commission changed the presidential nomination system, in ways that increased the power of the national party (Democratic National Committee or DNC), but also made the process more competitive.

Under this system, the DNC removed the “winner take all” or unit rule process by which states previously awarded all convention delegates to a single candidate, shifting instead to a more proportional.  In this new system, candidates meeting a threshold (minimum %) received part of the overall number of delegates. As a result, many states shifted to primary elections as a means to select delegates. The number of delegates tends to reflect the relative population size.  In addition, the party created an additional grouping known as “super delegates” who came from party positions within the states.  This group was meant to balance the more popular basis of the delegates, though its ability to impact the decision was changed in 2018; currently, super delegates only can cast votes on a second or later ballot, if no agreement on a nominee occurred on the first.

Although the McGovern-Fraser Commission only applied to the Democratic party, the Republican party also shifted some of its rules.  This impact resulted primarily because of the impact of McGovern-Fraser on state laws resulting in the growth of primaries.  However, the Republican state parties still tended to use the “winner take all” method to allocate delegates. Beginning in 2012, in an order to discourage states from scheduling their races too early (frontloading), the party required states with earlier contests to apply some measure of proportional allocation.  For both parties, the nomination process today remains complicated.

The calendar shows a lengthy line of events that vary not only by state but also, in some cases, by party within each state.  Some state parties host caucuses, in which voters discuss candidates before visibly supporting a candidate – sometimes by ballot, in others by grouping with like-minded voters, raising their hands or another such method.  Although less common, these methods are seen as more deliberative.  More common is the use of primaries – elections within the party.  Compared to just a decade or so ago, the majority of state parties now use open primaries, in which voters do not have to be registered with a party in order to vote in it – though they can only vote in one primary.   A small portion of states still use closed primaries, which allow only those voters registered with a party to cast a vote; closed primaries were once viewed as a way to protect the parties, but are now seen as tending to emphasize the influence of less moderate voters.  (For further detail see the election calendar from Ballotpedia, a credible source run by the Lucy Burns Institute, a non-partisan and non-profit entity.)

Timing of presidential contests also adds a layer of complexity, as states hold their races from February through June.  By their state laws, Iowa and New Hampshire require theirs to be the first races, even though they are not very reflective of the larger population.  Turnout already tends to be lower, even in presidential nomination races, due to lower levels of engagement, as shown by the data provided by the United States Elections Project; surprisingly turnout has not been noticeably different among contests that fall later in the cycle. The timing of the presidential nomination contests may or may not align with the timing for other federal, state and local primary contests, which can impact turnout in the latter races and increase the cost of needing to hold two elections.

Over the last few decades, some states have opted to band together in their influence by holding their races on what has now come to be known as “Super-Tuesday”.  This event is so named because it is the closest thing we have to a national primary; this year over 1300 delegates will be selected in the Democratic contests, which make up about one-third of the total delegates and two-thirds of the number needed to secure the nomination.  Republican contests have been less consequential because they hold the presidency, despite some challengers to the president’s run for re-election.  However, a significant portion of delegates still remains in the contests following Super Tuesday.

Given the nature of the current process, perhaps it is time for more reforms.  Dr. Lisa Parshall provides a thorough analysis of the shortcomings with the current system in Reforming the Presidential Nominating Process: Front-Loading’s Consequences and the National Primary Solution.  Some of Parshall’s insights are captured here – front-loading, which impacts momentum and perceived viability of candidates, also results in some voters having a greater influence on the outcome.  She resurrects and strengthens a reform option long-suggested: shifting to a national primary process in which voters in all eligible areas cast their ballots on the same day.  In this constitutionally-based argument, the reform offers greater political equality – one person one vote.

Is it time for a change? According to an analysis by political scientist Morris Fiorina, weak partisans, independents who lean towards a party and pure independents do not find themselves well-represented by the parties.  The trend towards open primaries helps provide opportunities for these voters to participate and shape the direction of the parties, though turnout levels still leave much to be desired.  Other reforms, such as the shift to mail-in ballots – such as recently passed in Pennsylvania – can help those voters with work or transportation conflicts.  A nationally coordinated set of primaries would not only provide for political equality among voters but allow for a clearer and coordinated effort to engage citizens in this important process.


Hack: Capitalize when referring to a political party; small-case for democratic and republican indicates instead a type of government.


4 Comments so far

  1. Amy on March 3, 2020 1:37 am

    What is the purpose of a candidate suspending their run before Super Tuesday? Shouldn’t they continue their bid if they have a good chance of winning more delegates? Should they wait until after Super Tuesday?

  2. rlauerma@messiah.edu on March 5, 2020 9:29 pm

    Ethically, voters can express concerns. The candidates may have had a couple of points in mind. First, they may have expected to do much better in the prior contest than they did – though the prior contests amounted to a handful of delegates in comparison to Super Tuesday and what yet follows. Second, their marketing folks might have indicated that polling numbers were not surmountable. Finally, the party may be marshalling what scholars call its “gatekeeping” role in that the more moderate candidates have withdrawn to promote support of the candidate whom they think is more electable.

    After the state allocates the delegates and they go to the convention, the delegates can be freed up – especially after the first vote – for other candidates. Thus, the votes are not inherently wasted.

  3. Ruth Beaver on March 6, 2020 7:26 pm

    If there was a shift to a national primary, would this be complicated by the electoral processes in various states? For example, would states like Iowa and Nevada who caucus (as opposed to simply casting ballots) have to change how they vote, or could they continue with that process if we moved to a national primary model? I know that California had early voting this year, which wasn’t used as much as the state had hoped because a lot of voters were waiting for the results of other states and to see who was dropping out. Would California have to go back to everyone casting their ballots on the same day, or could early voting continue in a national primary model?

  4. rlauerma@messiah.edu on March 11, 2020 2:36 pm

    Conceivably, because it is hypothetical unless the national parties changed their regulations for eligible contests or states changed their laws in response, state parties could still have a choice. Likewise, early voting or mail-in systems, which allow people to send in their ballots prior to a deadline, could be allowable as long as the deadline met the national primary date.

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