Only a National Primary Day will Bring Moderation to Either Party
In the presidential debates for the Democratic party nomination so far, instead of a debate, we have seen each candidate attempting to out do the other in terms of how far to the left she or he can be. Unfortunately, in a country where at least one third of the electorate is independent and in the middle, this is not exactly a winning formula for the general election.
Only those who can appeal to the middle, or the median voter as she may be called, will win.
The current nominating system militates against selecting candidates that appeal to the center from either party. Democrats invariably pick candidates that tack left during the caucus and primary season, and Republicans pick candidates that tack right. Why? Because of a series of party reforms dating back to the 1970s that was intended to democratize the selection process.
Prior to 1972 very few candidates entered primary elections; rather they appealed to state party bosses and through backroom negotiations secured delegates heading into nominating conventions. The turning point was the 1968 presidential election when Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the presidential race following President Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal. But while Senators Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Robert Kennedy of New York were battling it out in the primaries, Humphrey, who never entered a primary, was negotiating with state party leaders.
Although Humphrey secured the nomination the old fashion way, he ultimately lost a close race to Richard Nixon. Many McCarthy and Kennedy supporters didn’t support Humphrey; rather they maintained that he stole the nomination and wasn’t really a legitimate candidate. Following the election party leaders engaged in soul searching in an attempt to figure out why they lost. Following a series party commissions, most notably the McGovern-Fraser commission, and reforms to the nominating process, it would no longer be possible to secure the Democratic party nomination the old fashioned way.
In an effort to democratize the nominating process, all candidates would have to enter either participatory party caucuses and/or primary elections. By the old rules parties could select nominees that they believed were electable. Under the new rules, any candidate who could secure enough delegates going into the convention could get the nomination.
Party reforms, however, required changes to state election laws, and this too required negotiations, which resulted in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire, with few delegates, having the first caucus and primary respectively. More delegate rich states like New York and California found themselves towards the end of the nominating process.
Of course the goal was to give small states a say in the process. Paradoxically, it gave these states a disproportionate say, if not the ultimate definitive one. Typically what happens is whomever wins either Iowa or New Hampshire gains momentum heading into the next set of caucuses and primaries. Contributions are usually given to the victors, and the victors who now can raise more money following initial victories are now able to spend even more on advertising and their own branding.
Those candidates who don’t do well initially end up being forced out of the race before even hitting the big states where there are many more delegates. A field of twenty could easily be a field of two or three by June when California often has its own primary. The reality is that for residents of big states, they don’t have much of a choice by the time they get to vote in the primaries.
What happens is that the process self-selects for candidates on the left in Democratic party and candidates on the right in the Republican party. This is because the party loyalists and activists most likely to participate in the nominating process tend to be reflective of the party bases, and not the median voter in the general election.
We are beginning to see this in the first debates in the Democratic party nominating process, and it will only become more pronounced once the first caucus in Iowa occurs. Already candidates are trying to prove their leftist bona fides in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Ironically, moderate voters who now indicate a preference for say Biden in the polls won’t actually have an opportunity to vote for him in primary.
The only foreseeable solution to this problem would appear to be a national primary. A national primary would end small states like Iowa and New Hampshire holding the rest of the nation hostage to more extreme ideologies on either side. Candidates would be forced to appeal to the median voter. It might be more difficult to drum candidates out of the race prematurely. Because candidates would be required to appeal more to moderates, the parties would more likely end up selecting electable candidates.