Nominating U.S. Presidential Candidates: A Dysfunctional Non-System

The United States is governed by a powerful president elected under archaic rules that violate democratic norms. But it’s not just the November election that is deficient: the way presidential candidates are nominated is also problematic. Due to state and Federal laws that discriminate against new and small parties, the Presidential nomination process of the Democratic and Republican parties is an essential part of the process — effectively the only way to get elected. In 2016 Donald Trump took advantage of the openness to outsiders to take over the Republican Party and thereby become President as a minority winner, both in the nomination process and in the actual election. The 2020 primary elections could demonstrate further democracy failures.

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Today’s conventions serve no purpose except free media coverage — but it’s still possible that delegates could actually be required to make decisions.

How the Process Evolved

The way a person becomes the candidate of the Democrats or the Republicans is a product of evolution, not design. It has changed repeatedly over time through the interaction of multiple players, laws, and political struggles.

Americans consider presidential primaries as the first round of a two-round election system. However, legally the primaries are just one part of a non-governmental process — the most notable remnant of the caucus-convention system previously used to nominate candidates for most offices. Party members caucus at various times to select delegates to a convention, which then nominates candidates. Typically there are several layers: caucus meetings name candidates to county or state conventions, which in turn select delegates to state or national conventions. Since the United States has neither nationally-run elections or centralized political parties, the process was always complicated: each of the state parties, and later each of the states, had a role in making the rules.

Through the 1968 conventions, the parties generally controlled the delegate selection process and delegates could vote for any candidate. Beginning with the 1972 elections, there was a shift to delegate selection via state-run primary elections in which the delegates are pledged to candidates — by party rule and sometimes by state law. (The Democrats require that delegates “in all good conscience” stick with the candidate selected by the voters.) With these changes, the delegates have become an anachronistic counting mechanism in a system where voters determine the nominee in public elections. This shift is analogous to the one that occurred with the Electoral College system for selecting the President in which the electors were already irrelevant automatons by the first contested election of 1796.

Although the dramatic change in the way Presidential candidates are nominated is often seen as a triumph of democracy over back-room deal-making, there are a number of ways in which the system is deeply flawed.

Low Participation

The most fundamental problem is that only a small fraction of voters participate. In 2016, when both the Democrats and the Republicans had hotly contested nomination races, voter turnout averaged 29% in states holding primaries — just below the record 30% turnout of 2008. That’s only half the 60% participation rate of November 2016, which is itself at the lower end of the range of peer democracies. Several factors explain low turnout in primaries compared to the real election in November.

Not everyone is allowed to vote. Currently 17 states require voters to pre-register in a party to vote in that party’s primary. In the remaining states voters can choose which party primary to participate in, although in some states they can only do so if not enrolled in any party. Many states hold other primary contests at the same time as the presidential primary, which forces voters to pick a single party for all offices.

The race has already been decided. With the staggered primary election calendar, some candidates in competitive races drop out before many voters get their say, and frequently the nomination is already secured before some states have voted. When an incumbent president seeks re-election there is rarely real competition and therefore little incentive to vote.

The election is a caucus. When a state party holds a “caucus,” voters must come to a meeting at a specified time in a limited number of places and must stay for a significant time. Caucus turnout is typically in the single digits. Iowa’s caucus-goers are courted assiduously, but even there, turnout was only 16% in 2016, less than half the average for a primary. For 2020, the Democrats added a new rule that any state party holding a caucus must take steps to increase participation. As a result, most switched to primaries. Only three are still planning to use caucuses (Nevada, Wyoming, and Iowa) compared to twelve in 2016. The result is that caucuses are now largely irrelevant, with the major exception of Iowa, where the low and possibly unrepresentative turnout can have a major impact on shaping the course of the nominating race.

From Votes to Delegates

Although presidential primaries appear to be the first round of a national election, they are actually still elections of delegates to conventions. The rules for selecting delegates can affect the outcome.

Number of delegates. Each party determines the number of delegates to be selected in each state and territory. For 2020, the Democrats will allocate half the base number of delegates using the state’s electoral votes and half using the number of votes for the Democratic candidate in the prior three elections. States receive extra delegates if they hold contests later in the cycle or if they hold contests at the same time as neighboring states, up to a maximum bonus of 35%. However, since most states don’t want to wait until the contest is already over, the largest bonus expected in 2020 is 20%.

Allocation method. Since 1992, the Democrats have allocated delegates in proportion to the vote each candidate receives. In 2020, 64% of the delegates will be allocated by congressional district and the remainder by state. In either case, a candidate must win at least 15% of the vote (either in the CD or state) to receive any delegates. The Republicans allow states to select an allocation method, which can be either proportional (with an optional threshold of up to 20%), winner-take-all (the candidate with a plurality of votes gets all the delegates), or winner-take-most (a candidate who receives a threshold, which can vary by state but must be at least 50%, gets all of the delegates).

Delegates not representing voters. In 2020, almost 17% of the Democratic delegates will be “superdelegates” who do not need to consider the will of the primary and caucus voters. However, due to the efforts of the 2016 Sanders campaign, for the first time, superdelegates will not be allowed to vote on the first ballot.

What Could Go Wrong

Although several candidates have already abandoned the field, there are still more candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination than ever before, beating the previous record of 17 Republican candidates in 2016. Candidates still in the race when voting begins in February have an incentive to stay at least a bit longer: in 2020, almost ⅔ of the delegates will be awarded by the third week of March. There are potential pitfalls that this number of candidates can bring.

Disproportionate allocation of delegates. Although Democratic Party rules require proportional allocation of delegates, the threshold of 15% means that voters who support weaker candidates will be wasting their votes. Moreover, 64% of the delegates will be apportioned by Congressional District. Because most CDs have four to six delegates, the 15% threshold and the need to round to the nearest whole delegate can lead to significant deviations between vote shares and delegate shares.

Brokered convention. If there are at least three strong candidates through March or later, it becomes increasingly likely that no candidate will win a majority on the first ballot at the convention. On the second and later ballots, delegates would no released from their pledges and superdelegates would be allowed to vote. Convention delegates would revert to their original role of picking candidates. Reaching a majority would necessarily involve negotiations among the candidates, and the nominee may not be the one with the most primary votes.That might be both a fair and strategically correct outcome, but voters may not agree. And Trump would certainly question the legitimacy of a nominee picked that way. As journalist Walter Shapiro observes:

“The hardest challenge in envisioning an improved nomination system is convincing primary voters that a political convention is a legitimate decision-making body rather than merely a scenic backdrop for political speeches. A major aspect of the problem is that few voters recall the last contested convention — the 1976 battle between incumbent Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan. And very few (aside from political junkies) recall that the last second ballot at a convention was the 1956 Democratic vice-presidential battle between Estes Kefauver and a young Massachusetts senator named Kennedy.”

What Will Go Wrong

Too Long. American Presidential campaigns are the longest in the world. It wasn’t always this way. President Kennedy declared his candidacy only in January of the year he was elected. Jimmy Carter pioneered the idea of pre-campaigning in 1975, taking advantage of the accidental early timing of the Iowa caucuses to create a bandwagon effect. Now campaigns often begin a year before the early primaries — two years before the start of the term of office.

Too Expensive. A long campaign is an expensive one. The 2016 Presidential campaign cost $2.4 billion, plus $4 billion for Congressional campaigning. By comparison, the two-month-long UK 2017 election cost only $55 million. As of the third quarter of 2019, Democrats had raised more money for the 2020 campaign than President Trump, $476 million compared to $165 million. But the Democratic dollars were distributed among more than 20 candidates. With only token opposition, Trump can hoard fundraising dollars for the general election. As of September 2019, he had $86 million on hand. Bernie Sanders, the best funded of the Democrats, had only $33 million.

Too Few Voters. In 2020, if Trump faces no significant challenge for the Republican nomination, overall turnout may be closer to the record low of 16% in 2012 (when President Obama had no challenger) than 2016 (when there were contested races in both parties).

Some Voters More Equal Than Others. Voters in the early states, especially Iowa and New Hampshire, have a disproportionate say. The early status of these states was accidental, and then jealously guarded and sanctioned in 1981 by Democratic Party rules. There is some evidence that this disparity distorts economic policy. Technically these elections merely determine a small number of delegates, and with proportional allocation, the difference in delegate counts may be small. But the media create an entirely separate contest of who “wins.” Washington Post opinion writer Paul Waldman writes:

“What may be the worst part of all, however, isn’t the fault of the Iowa and New Hampshire voters. It’s the way candidates are brutally culled by the news media if they fail to perform well enough in those two states — a decision made according to a set of arbitrary and ever-shifting criteria in which sometimes coming in second or third is a terrible defeat and sometimes it’s a glorious victory. A few thousand votes in those contests can be the difference between ‘This candidate is a magnificent hero whom all in the party have come to admire’ and ‘This candidate is a pathetic loser who ought to do us all a favor and disappear.’”

Candidate Screening: Too Little and Too Much. The primaries are a curious hybrid of public and private. The public expects that any candidate can compete and that the party institutions should treat all candidates equally. Backers of Bernie Sanders were outraged in 2016 at the possibility that the Democratic National Committee was helping his opponent, even though Sanders had never affiliated with the Democrats in his long political career.

The free media coverage associated with a presidential run encourages long-shot candidates. The Democrats this year have addressed the problem of too many candidates by setting rules for participation in debates — tantamount to rules for eliminating candidates, given the importance of televised coverage — based on polls and fundraising. Both of these criteria are flawed: “Relying on polls gives an unfair advantage to candidates who are already well known. . . . Using fund-raising as a standard risks making affluent donors even more influential than they already are.”

There is no fair, non-arbitrary way for parties to limit the number of candidates. Worse, the parties have no role in vetting candidates — even obviously unqualified ones such as Donald Trump.

According to recent articles in both the Washington Post and New York Times, Democratic party leaders are worried that none of the current candidates are the best to take on (even a weakened) President Trump. They point to Biden’s low fund-raising totals, for example. But what enticements can the party bring? Any new entrant would still face months of campaigning and fundraising. Party leaders cannot order existing candidates to drop out — and certainly can’t order them to reassign campaign bank accounts. Soon the state-created deadlines for participating in primary elections will pass.

Despite the apparent openness of primaries, for 2020 the Republicans are making no pretense of holding a fair contest. Long before the first voting, the Republican National Committee was merged into the Trump re-election campaign. Republican state parties, firmly in the control of Trump loyalists, have canceled primaries in at least four states. The RNC does not plan to sanction any primary-season debates — and Trump has said that he won’t participate in them anyhow.

Picking the Wrong Candidates

In 2016, a majority of voters disliked both of the nominees. Trump had the worst favorability rating in history and Clinton had the second-worst. Trump captured the Republican nomination on the strength of about 45% of the primary vote (some of that coming after many of his opponents had dropped out). And Republican primary voters were only 15% of the electorate.

The official policies of the Republican Party are today much further to the right than mainstream right-wing parties in most other democracies. Two of the leading contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination are further to the left than any Democratic nominee since McGovern in 1972. A more centrist candidate might appeal to the greatest number of voters. But party-identified voters, and only a small fraction of them, choose the nominee. At the same time, there is no way right-leaning voters who dislike Trump can pick a viable alternative. Thus (as in 2016) the legacy party nominees may not be viewed favorably by large numbers of voters.

If the primary system fails to produce suitable candidates, there is no backup plan. State laws make it burdensome to qualify for the November ballot nationally, and in all but two cases allocate all delegates to the plurality winner, giving voters a big incentive to avoid a long-shot, lest they end up electing their least-favorite candidate.

Potential fixes, both large and small, to the way that Americans nominate Presidential candidates will be discussed in a future post on my blog, Defective Democracy.

Written by

data scientist, democracy advocate, transportation analyst

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