Forum

End all primaries

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The 2016 presidential primaries were bruising and probably left both parties more split and internally angry than they were at the start. This has nearly always been the result of one-party primaries. To understand why they can have such an effect, it’s important to understand how they came to exist in the first place.

During this election cycle, supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) were planning to hold a protest near the Democratic National Convention. Political pundits were saying this Democratic presidential primary had shades of the 1968 debacle which resulted in police violently putting down anti-Vietnam War protests and the selection of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had participated in zero of the 13 primaries that cycle.

Every political pundit who made that claim was completely wrong. The 2016 Democratic primary was divisive, but the 1968 Democratic National Convention was a tragedy.

With opposition to the Vietnam War growing, President Lyndon B. Johnson realized his political prospects were dwindling after he only eked out a narrow victory over one of his fiercest critics, Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), in New Hampshire. Johnson exited the race, creating room for Humphrey and former United States Attorney General and then-Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-NY). Humphrey’s campaign actively pursued delegates to the convention from states that held no primaries. McCarthy and Kennedy won six and four primaries, respectively, though Kennedy won most of the states where they were competitive.

Kennedy won his final primary on June 4, 1968, taking a 4-point victory in a tightly contested race in California. The delegates committed to the three frontrunners were split; 561 were committed to Humphrey, 393 to Kennedy, and 258 to McCarthy. Since 1304 delegates were needed to win the nomination, this left a pathway for any of the three candidates to find his way to the nomination.

After Kennedy’s victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in California, he was walking to the press room when he was assassinated. Kennedy’s death stripped the Democrats’ anti-Vietnam War contingent of its best chance to capture the nomination.

To make matters worse, anti-Vietnam War protests were brutally put down by police officers outside the convention. This disturbed many of the people watching the conventions at home and also exacerbated acrimony between the pro- and anti-Vietnam War wings of the party.

As the convention came to a close, despite McCarthy gaining a plurality of the vote in primaries and Humphrey gaining none, Humphrey ended up winning an overwhelming victory on the first ballot. However, the campaign was never able to recover from the lack of support from the Democratic base, and Humphrey ended up losing the electoral vote badly to Vice President Richard Nixon despite a near deadlock in the popular vote.

The Democrats then created the McGovern-Fraser commission to ensure that primaries would never result in such a blatant failure of democracy again. This commission wrote a series of rules designed to ensure fairer and more transparent selection of delegates. Most states complied by having primary elections to determine who they would send to the convention, leading to the modern primary.

The first Democratic primary campaign in 1972 was nearly as brutal as the lead up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Early favorite Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME) was sunk by a pair of articles in the Manchester Union-Leader, one of which was eventually attributed to the Nixon campaign, claiming that Muskie had insulted French Canadians, and the second amounted to a sexist attack on Muskie’s wife, claiming that she drank and swore. The prominent Democrats left in the race traded positions as leaders at any time. Humphrey was able to win several rust belt states, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) managed to win the popular vote in New Jersey even though zero delegates were at stake, and former Alabama governor George Wallace backed off of his aggressive segregationist views and managed to stake a good position for himself until he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down, ending his campaign. Somewhat hilariously, Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), chair of the McGovern-Fraser Commission which had written the rules for the primary, put together an anti-establishment campaign. Despite only coming in second in the popular vote, McGovern was able to secure the delegates necessary for the nomination.
McGovern’s views put him at odds with the party’s leadership, and left plenty of room for the Nixon campaign to paint him as a left-wing extremist. Nixon won 49 states and cleared 60 percent in the popular vote, which no one has done since. The Democrats have still not put an “establishment” candidate in the White House since Johnson.

Primaries were so successful that the Republicans followed suit in 1976, leading to a bitter contest between President Gerald Ford, who took over after the Watergate scandal forced Nixon out of office, and former California governor Ronald Reagan. Though Ford won this round, he lost the general to Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Reagan came back with a vengeance in 1980, crushing social and foreign policy moderate, former CIA Director George H. W. Bush and unexpectedly steamrolling President Carter. Reagan’s brand of movement conservatism permanently derailed a shift of the Republican Party towards the center and inspired a generation of rock-ribbed conservatives that began to take control of the government in the Republican Revolution in 1994 and continues to control most seats in local, state, and federal government. Even Bush and his son, George W., governed from a position closer to Reagan’s than their own.

The erosion of entire ideologies like Bush’s within parties is the natural result of primaries. When a candidate only has to appeal to voters who will not only vote for one party, but show up to low-turnout primaries to do so in order to gain the nomination, that candidate has a new generic voter to consider. A Republican needs to win the average Republican, not an average voter, before participating in a general election. The same goes for Democrats.

Most general elections for local and state representatives, the House of Representatives, and even the Senate are so lopsided that winning the primary might as well be a free pass to the contested office. Our State Senator from Allegheny County, Jay Costa, ran unopposed. No Republican would have a chance of taking him down right now. This is true for many electoral districts in the nation. While the divide between urban and rural voters creates a lot of these differences, some congressional districts are drawn to concentrate one party’s votes into a single district, an act known as gerrymandering. This creates districts that are nearly impossible to wrest from the other party. This disenfranchises people in those districts in the minority party because they cannot help select the candidate that will get an automatic win. This happens in statewide elections, too. While 34 Senate seats were up for grabs on Tuesday, fewer than 10 were considered competitive.

This means people getting elected don’t even have to consider the ideas of the other side. If they do, they risk losing their jobs. Bipartisanship is a major target, and candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are excoriated for daring to reach across the aisle. If working with the other side will alienate your only constituents who matter, why do it?

With elections so focused on one ideology, it makes it easy for politicians to win by actively trashing the other side. Negative campaigning is very effective, so when you don’t even have to think about Republicans to win your election, why not drag them all through the mud? It’s an easy way to score political points. This broken incentive system leads to extreme anger at the other party. When voter’s local officials are so hell-bent on the idea that the figureheads of the opposing party are directly causing their economic anxiety, voters are going to wonder who on earth could possibly back those monsters.

Getting rid of primaries entirely could result in a repeat of 1968, but this incentive system that has led to brutal levels of political polarization needs to be broken.

One of two systems could break it.

The first would be instituting a single transferable vote or ranked choice vote for all candidates who have entered into an election with no primaries. For example, in this election, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Gary Johnson, and all of the other candidates would all be on the same ballot and voters would rank all of them. Whoever won the ranked choice vote would win. This means that candidates would have to appeal to all segments of the population in order to gain popularity on the ballot. Further, while some people fear that this would be unfair to the party with more candidates, as rounds go on, those extra candidates will be the first one dropped from the ballot and their votes will probably disperse more heavily among the candidates in their own party than the other.

The second, which could be useful considering how technically difficult that first method of voting could be on a scale as grand as the United States, would be top two primaries. Again, every candidate would appear on the same ballot in the primary, and two would come out on top and contest the general one on one. Parties would be forced to thoroughly vet their candidates, lest they split their own party’s votes.

Both of these systems give candidates an incentive to move towards the ideology of their whole region instead of just the dominant one. They disincentivize the hardline partisanship that has become an increasingly prominent feature of our politics since primaries were created. This could help to heal the vicious divides that have left our country protracted battles that end in unproductive legislative sessions and bitter feelings.

This “anti-establishment” wave taking over the world and culminating in the stunning election of Donald Trump on Tuesday night is a very real existential threat. It rejects global norms because they are removed enough from people’s lives to be painted as a convincing villain. The policymakers whose incompetence does cause the trials and tribulations of people continue to retain their obscurity and keep their popularity where it needs to be by toeing the party line at every turn. Primaries make for fun news cycles sometimes, but must be eliminated for the government to respond to all of its citizens and function at some acceptable level.