Primary CareWhy We Need an Overhaul of the Primary Process

Elizabeth Warren, left, and Bernie Sanders (Photo credit: Chuck Kennedy for the Warren campaign, Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Gird your loins: Super Tuesday is drawing to a close. The New York Times’s infernal needles are in place, one-third of delegates are up for grabs, and returns are coming in fast. But though 14 states voted today, the months leading up to this day have prompted questions about whether these results will reflect the genuine will of the people—or whether, instead, they show how a handful of states long deemed as influential have tipped the scale, turning what should have been a conversation into a fait accompli. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, remains in the race as of today, but you wouldn’t have known this last week, when media pundits seemed to be folding up her chairs and turning off the lights.

The trajectory of Warren’s campaign—as well as those of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, and the other 2020 contenders whose names we forgot by the second primary debate—has been helpful in illustrating that the primary process in the United States is deeply broken, as is the way the media reports on that process. This is likely not a surprise to voters. The series of acute disasters that have already marred the primary season—from the Iowa-caucus app debacle to the abruptly closed polling stations in South Carolina—have made a profound case for reforming the process. Just for starters: Eliminating caucuses, refusing to let candidates buy themselves into races, and ending the practice by which a handful of small, majority-white states have an outsized influence on deciding the nominee would be better for the party, better for nominees, and better for America.

The grueling runup to the 2020 election is a good example of the dysfunction that makes reform feel urgent and necessary. First, there’s the campaigning that can begin two years or more in advance, after years (or, in some cases, decades) of careful positioning. This includes the interminable series of primary debates during which way too many candidates get to spew talking points for three hours and occasionally land zingers for the three Vox reporters still watching by the bitter end. Younger, comparatively fresh faces testing the presidential waters—like Castro, O’Rourke, Harris, and Yang—are weeded out quickly, sometimes before the first primaries even happen, leaving voters with ballots that read like political obituaries; this proved to be a particularly acute problem when Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out of the race the weekend before Super Tuesday, throwing their weight behind Biden lest Bernie Sanders prevail in the polls.

The combined imbalance of funding disparities, name recognition, and which states must be catered to early in the race sinks many progressive and/or candidates of color—and yet, every election cycle, we express shock and surprise at the lack of diversity in this establishment. Then there is the incredibly rapid pace of these early primaries, which, combined with incessant horse-race media coverage, can make the fate of the upcoming Democratic convention seem sealed in a matter of weeks as candidates who made it through the incredibly long lead-up to the actual voting hit a wall. Typically there is a clear candidate before all states have even voted, making later states wonder if it’s even worth showing up, though this year there are fears the convention may be contested. This entire process is a wild way to select a political candidate. Races for rodeo queen are more dignified and enjoyable to watch.

Before the primaries and caucuses began, the Warren campaign had occupied a space as a frontrunner, jostling with Buttigieg and Biden behind Sanders until, abruptly, it didn’t. Because Iowa votes and polling data didn’t go Warren’s way, political pundits declared even before the New Hampshire primary that Warren wasn’t viable: She’s too liberal, can’t bring together a coalition, and, of course, she’s not Sanders. The media and pundit-class reaction to Warren’s less-than-ideal showing in Iowa and New Hampshire—when they bothered to mention her at all—showed that a single misstep can prove lethal when a process that allegedly involves all 50 states relies on a small handful of them to decide who should represent the Democratic party. In roughly two weeks, Warren fell from progressive favorite to “likely to lose her home state,” to media outlets all but forgot she existed, to eking out single digits on Super Tuesday.

The media, and to some extent the party itself, have created a fraught situation in which voters feel pressure to “strategically” turn away from their first choice to prevent a worse outcome. But even before her “disappointing” showing in Iowa and New Hampshire (races that it’s important to emphasize don’t represent the electorate), pundits feared that Sanders’s loyal supporters would refuse to vote for Warren if she won the nomination, and the way those fears expressed seemed to bring the fear to life with suggestions that Bernie or Bust was creating a “predicament” for Democrats to ignore at their own peril. This attitude was fed by media coverage as pundits debated whether the “elite” could “stop Bernie,” with the Boston Globe even calling Sanders “disrespectful” for campaigning in Warren’s home state of Massachusetts. A clash of progressive titans makes for good ratings and pageviews, even when it’s exaggeration for the majority of voters who aren’t Extremely Online. (Notably, actual polling data consistently showed Bernie or Bust was not a thing.)

A clash of progressive titans makes for good ratings and pageviews, even when it’s exaggeration for the majority of voters who aren’t Extremely Online.

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Some high-profile spats in January emboldened rhetoric pitching the two campaigns as enemies, including Warren’s claim that Sanders told her a woman could never win a presidential race (Sanders disputes it), the revelation of a clunky anti-Warren canvassing script, and a post-debate confrontation, captured on a hot mic, where both candidates accused each other of lying. In a fraught political environment where backing down is dangerous, these incidents exacerbated tensions with no clear outlet for resolution; a product of the backward primary process more than a genuine rivalry between the two candidates. At any other time, these incidents wouldn’t have made it to the national stage; If the primary process were shortened and focused on substance rather than theatre (and network ratings), tensions couldn’t have simmered and festered. The series of events that happened next, with fears that the progressive powerhouses would tear the electorate apart and leave Democrats with a nominee like Biden, likely wouldn’t have happened either.

The Sanders-Warren situation, along with the rapid attrition of candidates of color, highlights the need for change and the responsibility that the Democratic Party should take far more seriously than it does. Though 2020 isn’t the first time people have questioned the structure of the primary system, the question of “Why Iowa?” is surfacing in corporate-media spaces, as are assertions that if primaries are going to continue to be staggered, they should lie much closer together and reflect a more representative cross-section of the U.S. electorate. Ranked-choice voting is another vital option, one that would let people vote their hearts and consciences in the first round and more strategically in the second if need be, but that doesn’t force people to choose between the candidate they’re all-in for and the second-choice option just to keep a hated third choice from leveraging a divided electorate.

Early Super Tuesday voters, many of whom sent in now-worthless ballots marked for Buttigieg and Klobuchar, emphasize that ranked choice would ensure that everyone can participate meaningfully in the nomination process. Offering nationwide voting by mail as an option in addition to early voting and day-of participation at the polls could also improve access to the vote. And shortening the primary process overall prevents advantaging deep-pocketed candidates who can keep a campaign going for more than a year or who glide in at the last minute with an advertising blitz. These are critical conversations to have, because the process as it stands now turns powerful would-be allies like Warren and Sanders into enemies, disrupting their ability to work together, making it harder to pool resources in the future, and encouraging sensationalistic media punditry. A ticket with both candidates, for that matter, would be highly appealing to many voters, but only if the tensions between them haven’t consumed all chance of collaboration.

Of course, the prospect of collaboration between the candidates—including robust debates about issues they disagree on—isn’t nearly as much fun for the networks profiting from the debates, the papers spilling gallons of ink on increasingly vapid editorials, or the political animals hoping to gain an advantage from a prolonged, vicious, and largely manufactured rivalry. Whatever else happens in 2020, the Democrats can and must rethink the way they choose their candidates. It’s hard to take the polite noises about “unity” seriously when so many people with the power to sway public opinions clearly relish the deep disunity currently at play.

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.