Posted by on April 27, 2016

Although there can still be surprises, after their big wins in New York, it appears that the primaries in America are settling down for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  The only problem is that few people seem to want either of them.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Clinton has a net negative approval rating among all registered voters of 24%, nearly double last month’s results.  Trump is doing even better in this race to the bottom, with a negative net approval rating of 41%, with fully 65% of registered voters viewing him poorly.  Trump has the further distinction of not even scoring well within his own party: 38% of Republicans claim that they would not support him in a general election.

These results should raise the question of whether the American way of choosing candidates is the right one.

I don’t think that most Americans realize just how anomalous our system of primary elections is.  With some minor exceptions, parties in all other major democracies choose their candidates internally.  Like our bizarre attachment to the imperial system of weights and measures, this may be a case where American exceptionalism is counterproductive.

Even in this year’s hotly contested contests, so far Republican primary voters and Democratic primary voters only equal 17% and 12%, respectively, of eligible voters.  This is only about half of the expected turnout in the general election.  But this is already a big improvement on the 2012 election cycle, when only 28 million participated in the primaries versus the 129 million who ultimately voted in the general election.

The problem is who turns out.  In the case of both parties, although most obviously with the Republicans who do not have ballast provided by the superdelegates, it tends to be the hard cores that dominate in the primaries, forcing candidates to adopt extreme positions in order to secure the nomination.  The nominees then have to execute an “Etch a Sketch” in order to appeal to general election voters, including independents.  As Mitt Romney discovered in 2012, in the age of YouTube, smartphones and the blogosphere, this is becoming increasingly difficult.  The extreme positions espoused in the primaries are getting harder to shake.

Although probably the worse, this is not the only problem with the system.  The primaries are major contributors to the absurdly lengthy and expensive process that electing a president has become in America.

From the earliest announcements of candidacies (Ted Cruz in March 2015 and Hillary Clinton in April 2015), to the presidential vote in November 2016, up to 20 months will elapse.  As a point of comparison, the UK is currently preparing for a referendum on its membership in the European Union, a far more consequential decision, after a two-month campaign.

It is hard to believe that much of the fundamental shallowness of the American political process does not result from the need to maintain attention during this overly lengthy process, as Donald Trump’s 140-character campaign is proving.  It is also hard to believe that this length does not contribute to an “election fatigue” that ultimately converts to lower voter education and turnout.

The primaries are huge contributors to the expense of elections.  As of April 2016, Democratic candidates have raised $462 million in direct and indirect (Super PAC) contributions.  The far more numerous Republican candidates have raised $766 million.  This means that almost certainly more money will be spent in the primaries than in the general election.  If you want to reduce the impact of money on politics, then one way to do it is to eliminate the primaries.  This is particularly true because money donated to a candidate before he or she is anointed is much more “speculative” and personal than money donated after the candidate is a party’s choice.  Like a venture capital investor in a start-up company, early donors probably expect and can get a higher return on their money.  And that higher return takes the form of political favors.

The primary system has other problems.  One is its sequential nature.  The general election takes place on one day, but there are already concerns that the early results coming out of the East contaminate the voting taking place on the West Coast.  This effect is multiplied in the primaries, where the “Big Mo” plays an outsized part (including through its impact on fundraising) and there is a large amount of tactical voting.  This also accounts for the absurd role that things like support for ethanol subsidies or New Hampshire coffee shops play in the process.

It is also unseemly that, in an allegedly open democracy, only two parties benefit from the elaborate machinery, publicity, legitimization and expense of government-supported primaries.  But this is probably just the libertarian in me talking.

What is the counterargument?  Well, there is really only one: primaries are more democratic than smoke-filled rooms dominated by party elites and special interests.  But a democratic vote where only the fringes show up is not much of mandate.  Proposals to open up the process, such as recently made by the editors of BloombergView, won’t solve this problem unless they can guarantee that a more representative group of people take advantage of the opportunity.  And, as I have argued above, it is possible that the expense of primary campaigns increases the influence of special interests.

The argument that primaries are more representative of the will of the voters also ignores the interest parties have in nominating the electable.  There are many ways of judging the mood of the electorate that don’t involve ten-months of primary votes.  Randomized polling probably gives a more accurate read than self-selected primary voters.

Internal nomination also means that at least the candidates can work with their fellow party members, something that is not obvious with the nomination of a Trump, for example.  This might forestall another source of Washington deadlock.

Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Compared to other democracies, do we really think that the American system produces better candidates and, ultimately, better office holders??  Or, for that matter, that the modern era of primary elections has produced better results than smoke-filled rooms used to produce in America?  (Particularly what smoke-filled rooms would produce with modern-day polling, transparency and the internet?)  The answer is far from obvious and it is certainly worth a debate.

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom


I Wish That I Had Said That…

“Stupidity is not ignorance, but the non-thought of received ideas,” by Milan Kundera, Czech author, notably of the excellent The Unbearable Lightness of Being


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[…] more thought: To repeat myself, why is no one questioning our primary system?   The one that took over a year and hundreds of […]