Tag Archives: primary elections

Too Much Democracy?

When I was working with a colleague in the Political Science department a couple of years ago, he convinced me that one of the problems with our electoral system was actually “too much democracy”–that too many of the votes we cast for state and local offices are not informed choices between, say, the candidates for county auditor, but simply opportunities to support our favored political party.

His position was that choices in these “downticket” elections are both uninformed (at least, about the merits of the candidates) and burdensome– time-consuming for voters and vote-counters alike–and for some voters, part of a ballot they see as intimidating.)

Whether we continue to vote for coroners and county surveyors, his observations raise some foundational questions about what sorts of electoral processes define actual democracy.

Along the same lines, an article from the Atlantic also challenged the assumption that “more” is better–where “more” is greater decision-making by the grass roots. The first Democratic debate of the 2020 election cycle had just been held, and the article criticized the decision to let small donors and opinion polls determine who deserved the national exposure of the debate stage.

Those were peculiar metrics by which to make such an important decision, especially given recent history. Had the Democrats seen something they liked in the 2016 Republican primary? The GOP’s nominating process was a 17-candidate circus in which the party stood by helplessly as it was hijacked by an unstable reality-TV star who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Republican. The Democrats in 2016 faced their own insurgency, by a candidate who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Democrat. And yet, after the election, the Democrats changed their rules to reduce the power of the party establishment by limiting the role of superdelegates, who had been free to support the candidate of their choosing at the party convention, and whose ranks had been filled by elected officials and party leaders. Then, as the 2020 race began, the party deferred to measures of popular sentiment to determine who should make the cut for the debates, all but ensuring runs by publicity-hungry outsiders.

The authors pointed out that no other major democracy uses primary elections to choose its political candidates. The Founders certainly didn’t provide for primaries. (As the authors noted, Abraham Lincoln didn’t win his party’s nomination because he ran a good ground game in New Hampshire. Party elders chose him.)

In fact, America didn’t have binding primaries until the 1970s.

The new system—consisting of primaries, plus a handful of caucuses—seemed to work: Most nominees were experienced politicians with impressive résumés and strong ties to their party. Starting in 1976, Democratic nominees included two vice presidents, three successful governors, and three prominent senators (albeit one with little national experience). Republican nominees included a vice president, three successful governors, and two prominent senators. All were acceptable to their party establishment and to their party’s base.

In 2016, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders exploited what the authors term the primary system’s “fragility.” The electorate had come to view the establishment’s seal of approval with hostility, and that encouraged outsider candidates to claim that their lack of party support showed “authenticity.” Meanwhile, the media provided lots of coverage to rogue candidates.

What to do?

Restoring the old era of smoke-filled rooms is neither possible nor desirable. Primaries bring important information to the nominating process. They test candidates’ ability to excite voters and campaign effectively; they provide points of entry for up-and-comers and neglected constituencies; they force candidates to refine their messages and prove their stamina. But as 2016 made clear, primaries are only half of a functional nominating system. The other half is input from political insiders and professionals who can vet candidates, steer them to appropriate races, and, as a last resort, block them if they are unacceptable to the party or unfit to govern.

This eminently reasonable observation is sure to infuriate ideologues in both parties, who insist that the electorate is all-knowing, and that party professionals are all part of some corrupt “establishment.” Yet survey after survey finds a significant majority of the electorate woefully ignorant of the most basic elements of the system of government for which they are choosing leadership.

When candidates are supported despite a lack of evidence that they know what the job entails and what the rules are, celebrity trumps competence.

As the authors conclude,

The current system is democratic only in form, not in substance. Without professional input, the nominating process is vulnerable to manipulation by plutocrats, celebrities, media figures, and activists. As entertainment, America’s current primary system works pretty well; as a way to vet candidates for the world’s most important and difficult job, it is at best unreliable—and at worst destabilizing, even dangerous.

Trump certainly proves their point.


Five More Days….

…until the primary election is over.

If you are like me, you are fed up/disgusted with the incessant negative television spots that tell you nothing about the candidate who has “approved” them and the constant stream of email messages “urgently” requesting money so that good can overcome evil. I’m just hiding under my desk until next Tuesday.

But while I’m under there, I’ll share a message I got from a reader yesterday, commenting on his own political observations and concerns. He wrote:

I’d like to focus on the peculiarities of the primary election in the former 4th District of Indiana. First, with the exception of Lafayette, West Lafayette, and a couple of other cities the District exhibits one-party rule. The consequence is that, in most cases, except for statewide contests, the Republican primary is the election. The media, outside of Tippecanoe and Clinton County, therefore focuses almost exclusively on the Republican primary candidates, ignoring the Democratic candidates and the local general election. Civic, business, media, and school organizations frequently sponsor debates and forums for the primary elections but rarely for the general election. This system is facilitated by the widespread indolent habit of general election voters to vote straight-party ballots in the general election avoiding an actual confrontation with the names of their elected representatives on the ballot. As I have greeted voters my required distance from the polling places on the general election day, I have found that fewer than 50 percent of voters actually know the name of their current U.S. Representative. Many will still not know when they emerge from the voting booth.

Second, I would note the conveniences and inconveniences of the current Indiana voting system. We have essentially monthlong voting here. If I am not mistaken, more than a third of Tippecanoe County voters cast their ballots before Election Day. I have been voting early for years, because I have been busy speaking to voters on my behalf or on the behalf of other candidates on Election Day. In Tippecanoe County we are blessed with an efficient and convenient Vote Center system. There is some disadvantage to candidates for precincts that cover only part of the County who wish to target their messages to voters on Election Day and obviously one can’t reach in the days before the election the substantial numbers of voters who have already cast their ballots, but the general advantages outweigh these concerns. In contrast, we have the earliest closing polls in the country, which makes it quite inconvenient for working people to vote. Lines can be quite long at lunchtime or at the end of the day.

Third, in the 2010 Republican U.S. Representative primary there were, I believe, 13 candidates. It was remarkable how in the majority of responses to questions they would each mouth identical right-wing platitudes. Name recognition is probably even a more significant contributor to success in the primary election than it is in the general election.

Finally, I don’t think it would be appropriate to ignore the component of race in the primary elections. I recall that there was a well-known African-American candidate on the Republican primary ballot who was unopposed. In the Indianapolis donut/white-flight counties this candidate only received two-thirds of the number of votes that other unopposed Republican candidates received. In a Democratic primary contest a mostly unknown candidate with a name that one might guess was African-American (the candidate was not, in fact, African-American) did much better in precincts with large African-American populations than in other precincts. There was a dramatic and sad ethnic-name based outcome in the 2010 Democratic 5th District primary. It should also be noted that Indiana was one of the first states to institute the Voter ID laws, which are racist in intent and discriminate on a racial basis in practice. It is claimed that they are designed to prevent voting fraud. No evidence has been provided to demonstrate that this form of fraud has existed in Indiana. Voter ID laws are the modern version of the racist poll taxes. I know that Voter ID laws have been found to be Constitutional. Poll taxes were evidently Constitutional too until there was a specific Amendment banning them.

In conclusion, I encourage people to be informed voters. Go beyond the names and party affiliations. Get to know the candidates, whether they are honest, and their positions on the issues.

Your thoughts?

Etch-A-Sketch and Old White Guys

There’s been a lot of talk–gleeful and rueful–about the “Etch-a-Sketch” comment by one of Mitt Romney’s advisors. (For those who missed it, the advisor was asked by a CNN reporter whether he worried that Mitt had been pushed so far right during the primary process that he would be unable to attract moderates during the general election; he responded that he wasn’t concerned, because the general election was like an Etch-A-Sketch–you shake everything up and start over.)

The remark underscored one of Romney’s biggest problems: the widespread perception that there is no “there” there–that he is Mr. Inauthentic. But I think it displayed an even more fundamental disconnect.

Today’s GOP has become a party of old white men who don’t understand how people communicate in the world of twitter and Facebook. We saw this during the last campaign–John McCain was often (aptly) described as “an analog candidate for a digital age.”

Romney’s advisor wasn’t wrong, exactly, about the nature of the primary and general campaigns–he was simply behind the times. It used to be that candidates could target voting blocks and special interests with direct mail appeals that flew under the radar of the electorate at large. It used to be that primaries could be conducted as largely “in house” contests–and it was usually only political junkies who would read the traditional media’s reporting on those primaries.

We don’t live in that world anymore. Facebook, Twitter and You Tube, among others, have altered the political landscape; people see a ridiculous remark, or are angered by a political position, and post it. Posts go viral. Literally millions of people are drawn into arguments that would have been “inside baseball” in days gone by.

And speaking of days gone by–nothing says old-fashioned and out of touch like a reference to Etch-A-Sketch.

Romney’s problem isn’t just that he’s willing to say anything to anyone. It’s that he and his team of old white guys don’t understand the world they now live in.