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As we grind towards the finish line of this disastrous primary season, it’s more apparent than ever that our system of primaries is monumentally stupid: stupid if you’re a Republican, stupid if you’re a Democrat, stupid all around. And I’m not merely saying this because of recent events. Let me explain.
The first, most baffling question is why do we allow the states who go first to go first? What is the magical formula that underlies the order in which states hold their primaries? Was it handed down from the Founders, who — in yet another extraordinarily prescient maneuver — decreed the nation’s nominating contest shall begin in Iowa, a state that wouldn’t even exist until 57 years after the Constitution was ratified?
Of course not. In reality, we didn’t arrive at this system through reason. The system, such that it is, formed over the course of years, with quadrennial modification of the relative order in which states go. Iowa goes first with its caucuses these days because … Jimmy Carter won it in 1976. New Hampshire goes second because … well, because it has since 1920 and because it has a state statute requiring that it go first. The net effect of this ordering is to bias the entire presidential nominating process, allowing one state which has a notoriously poor record of picking the eventual winner to have a disproportionate share of the nation’s attention, followed by another that’s a notorious outlier.
Fortunes are sunk into Iowa’s caucuses so that candidates can get a week’s worth of national attention and earned media. This, of course is merely the apéritif, the foretaste of the three-month bacchanal to come where candidates savage one another for the amusement of the media and various party apparatchiks. If you’re a Republican and a conservative, this ought to annoy and frustrate you to no end because, all too frequently, it seems like the system best serves the interests of states that will play no role in electing a potential Republican president.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The parties have tremendous power to influence the whens and whys of how primary contests occur. They should use that power — up to and including the stripping of delegates, such as happened in Michigan in 2008 — to better arrange the system in order to produce better outcomes.
(A full discussion of the merits of our system over that of a parliamentary one deserves its own post, but — for our purposes here — the main benefits are that our system rewards moderation, encourages early and sustained engagement from voters, and forces coalitions to form before the people speak. All told, I much prefer this to the alternative. But again, that’s for another time).
Several proposals to reform our primaries have come forward of late, including the concept of a regional primary. This idea has a great deal to commend it. Distinct regions of the nation tend to have distinct voting patterns, so allowing those regions to have their say severally seems like a good idea on the surface. The problem with such a system is that it biases any given election heavily in favor of whichever region goes first. Even if the regions were rotated once a cycle, a given region may have to wait a generation before it gets a chance to speak first.
But given that the American system of electoral politics is inherently designed to produce outcomes that the voters can trust, I think it makes sense to design the primary system to reflect that reality and have it act as a sort of damping circuit whereby the “noise” of the initial conditions of the election is quickly attenuated into a true signal. The question is: How can we accomplish that?
The chart above is a representation of the percentage of votes, by state, that Mitt Romney received in the 2012 general election. I’ve arranged the states in descending order of support – the gap in the middle represents the break between Republican and Democrat-won states. Washington, DC isn’t a state (or even on this planet, by the looks of things).
Rather than having a primary system designed around geography, perhaps we should have a system designed to reflect the various states’ ideologies. Moreover, this should be done with the intent of “damping” outcomes, so as to better reflect the electorate’s true signal. My proposal is to hold four groups of primaries in successive weeks, each made group made up of (decreasingly) ideologically diverse states.
So, for example, the Week One’s primaries under the new system would consist of the most lopsided states: Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Idaho, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, and Nebraska (i.e., the most Republican states), and Maryland, Rhode Island, New York, Vermont, Hawaii, and Washington, DC (the most Democratic).
These states represent the most extreme levels of support in either direction. It also happens that the number of electoral votes from Blue States is perfectly balanced by those from Red States, at 53 apiece. Running both extremes together will place ideological wings in tension, which is by intent. It’s very likely that the sort of candidate that can win in Hawaii as a Republican isn’t the sort who can win in Utah, but that’s alright. Early in the process, it’s not merely okay to have division, but actually desirable in that it can help us discover which wing of the party is stronger.
Moving forward, Week Two’s primaries would consist of the next-most ideological states: Kansas, Tennessee, North Dakota, South Dakota, Louisiana, Texas, Montana, Mississippi, Alaska, New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts, and California.
There are fewer Blue states here because of California’s enormity, but the number of electoral votes represented by each side is still relatively balanced at 83 and 81. You also get the two titans of California and Texas balancing one another’s influence.
Week Three’s primaries would consist of South Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Connecticut and Illinois. You still have a decent balance of Electoral College representation at 71-72 and good geographic diversity. What should strike you as well is that — as we draw to the end of the primaries — the candidates have to appeal more to the electorate’s center of mass, as the type of candidate who can win both North Carolina and Michigan is at least somewhat likely to prevail in November.
Week Four’s final primaries would consist of the classic, hotly-contested swing states: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Minnesota. If the purpose of this system is to attenuate the system’s signal and find a nominee who can be victorious in the general election, Week Four will provide an important reality check, as any nominee who is going to win the general election must be able to appeal to voters in these states.
Looking at the Electoral College math is harrowing if you’re a Republican. Considering the sorted list of states, a Republican nominee can win Utah through Virginia and still fall electoral four votes shy of victory. As it is, the very worst thing we can do to ourselves is allow either of the ideological extremes within either party to dominate the nominating process. The unfortunate reality of the situation is that — in an ideologically bifurcated nation — a few states hold the key to electoral victory, and its essential that our party find candidates who can win not only Utah, but also Pennsylvania and every state in between.
This proposal isn’t set in stone and the clustering of primaries can be updated every four years to reflect new conditions as necessary. The principle, however, should remain constant: No candidate can wield power that was not first earned electorally, and this system would be a step in the direction of finding just such a person.Published in