This Is a Terrible Way to Pick a President

The case for reforming the Democratic primary process.

Joe Biden is running a victory lap in South Carolina tonight after a nearly 30 point win over his 2nd closest primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. It’s understandable: many polls had shown tightening in the race in the weeks prior to the contest after Sanders notched popular vote wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. A late but crucial endorsement by the iconic Representative James Clyburn seems to have given Biden a huge boost in the final days, and he has reason to celebrate.

The “comeback kid” narratives for the former Vice President have already begun, and big donations are flowing in.

But the Biden “comeback” is in a certain sense a mirage that demonstrates how broken the presidential nominating process has become.

Biden was always strong with African-American voters (particularly older ones), and both his weakness in the first three contests and his strength in South Carolina are outliers each in their own way. Iowa and New Hampshire are among the whitest states in the nation, while the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate is disproportionately African-American. Beginning the contest in Iowa and New Hampshire was always going to make Biden appear weaker than he actually is, while a race in South Carolina would make him look stronger he ought going into a more representative Super Tuesday onslaught. Nevada, meanwhile, is the most demographically representative among the early contests, but because it comes third it helped to hide Sanders’ dominant strength among Latinx voters–a fact that won’t likely won’t be felt as powerfully as it ought to have been from the beginning until Super Tuesday. The fact that both Iowa and Nevada are caucus states further takes away from the element of representative democracy and takes away from the mandate candidates receive in winning them.

The sequential primary among oddly unrepresentative states has other warping effects as well. Both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have long had campaigns almost perfectly tailored to appeal to liberal-ish center-left white voters in the Midwest and Northeast–but almost no one else in the Democratic coalition. Yet the fact that the first two contests take place in states almost perfectly tailored to that demographic gave both the Buttigieg and Klobuchar campaigns unearned strength that helped to sideline Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have objectively broader coalitions and a stronger national presence. African-American voters had to wait until the fourth contest to weigh in with any serious numbers, seriously harming Biden’s momentum, while Warren’s strength with more educated, more urban and coastal progressives won’t make itself felt until Super Tuesday. But by then the voters siphoned off by Sanders on the left and Buttigieg/Klobuchar on the right may make it difficult for either Biden or Warren to regain the traction they rightly ought to have had from the beginning.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is benefiting heavily from holding onto a passionate, committed, mostly younger base of supporters who cannot be swayed from any other candidate, giving him a consistent if not overwhelming plurality across most states. As he racks up wins, that momentum carries over with money, support and good press. Time will tell if the setback in South Carolina proves significantly damaging, but with early and mail-in votes already banked in many Super Tuesday states, it is quite likely that Sanders will have a very good week ahead on the back of a dedicated plurality of voters set against a fractured group of opponents.

This is not how we should pick a president, and it’s not fair to the demographic groups that make up the Democratic coalition. It is mindboggling to allow two ultra-white states go first in the process of choosing the candidate for the explicitly anti-racist party, leaving a heavily Latinx, disproportionately young caucus state to go third, and only giving a heavily black (in the Democratic primary) state the opportunity to weigh in fourth.

Then there is the issue of electability. The reality is that while Democratic voters are obsessed this cycle with who is most capable of beating Trump, pretty much everyone’s theory of electability is probably wrong and no one knows what will happen. Democratic voters are casting ballots with their heads not their hearts, second-guessing what independent guys in exurban Wisconsin diners will or won’t do in November. This is having a particularly strong impact on Warren: stories abound of voters who want to support her, but worry that a woman can’t beat Trump. But it also affects other candidates. Who knows how many voters would be inclined to support Sanders but worry that the socialist label will destroy him, or would like to support Buttigieg but think he lacks the resume to beat Trump. Many Democratic voters are making the mistake of peering into a cloudy crystal ball, psyching themselves out about the electoral college rather than going with their gut instincts about who would make the best president.

Finally there’s the issue of the delegate thresholds. The minimum threshold for winning delegates across states and/or congressional districts is 15%. This would be reasonable in a two- or three-candidate contest. But in a race with a half dozen credible candidates, we are seeing “winners” crowned with less than 27% of the total vote, while candidates with 14% get nothing at all. This is absurd and wildly unrepresentative. If the contest continues in this fashion it would lead to a brokered convention in which all the pledged delegates would scramble to pick a nominee, with the added complication of the second-round addition of superdelegate DNC members, elected officials and party elders. And that nominee might or might not be the plurality winner in delegates and popular vote.

This is not how we should be picking a president.

There are a number of solutions to deal with this mess, but the most obvious would seem to be:

1) Rotate the initial primary contests, and ensure that the states that do go first have reasonably representative demographic profiles, including black, Latinx and young voters. It’s probably wise not to let the biggest, most expensive states go first so that insurgent candidates and those with lesser financial means can still compete.

2) Eliminate caucuses once and for all, switching to a primary system in all fifty states.

3) Adopt a ranked choice system so that that voters can cast their ballots with both head and heart, and so that their actual policy preferences can still be reflected regardless of whether they think a candidate they don’t like as well has a better chance of beating a Republican.

4) Shift the delegate allocations to be truly representative. If that means increasing the number of delegates from each state to the convention, so be it. If a national convention hall literally cannot hold that many delegates, find a technical workaround to let them in sequentially, or cast votes electronically (it’s not as if a public, easily verifiable vote like this would be subject to effective tampering.)

5) Eliminate the superdelegates as part of the national nominating pool. DNC members and other superdelegates should have a vote on party policy, platform and other issues, but not in picking the presidential nominee.

These reforms would go a long way toward fixing what is clearly a broken process for choosing the leader of the most powerful country on the planet.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.