May 31, 2005

Abolish the Primaries?

Neil the Ethical Werewolf—an unbeatable name, really—had a post the other day picking apart the presidential primary process. Indeed, it ought to be picked apart. At the same time, the solutions usually presented—break Iowa's lock on the process! Include Southern states! Rotating regional primaries!—always seem a tad unimaginative to me, even if they're the most realistic. At the very least we ought to think about and reject radical changes to the entire system before we resign ourselves to just shuffling a few states around here and there.

The main problem with simply breaking Iowa's death-grip on the primary process is this. Iowan caucus-goers are unrepresentative of the larger electorate, true. But any state's primary voters would be unrepresentative, mainly because primary voters are largely the "party base," not swing voters or "undecideds," and that's going to pull the nominees a little further away from the median voter. According to this data-set (pdf), even in southern states Democratic primary voters tend to be older, more liberal, better educated, less white, and poorer than the general electorate. And obviously more politically active. Indeed, Iowa got a lot of heat for being "too antiwar" in 2004, but regardless of what you think about this, primary voters in South Carolina and Virginia were actually more dovish on Iraq than Iowans. Now that's not necessarily a bad thing, and it's probably true that these southern primary voters may still be more representative of the general electorate than Iowan caucus-goers, but no matter what states go first, you're still getting a decent tug away from the "center".

The defense here is that there should be some sort of system in place to reward party activists. Eh, I'm not convinced this is always a sound principle. Why, exactly, should people who spend more time—have more time—to engage in Democratic activities get a greater say in the process? That same principle, mind you, justifies the undue influence of the wealthy, better-educated, and elderly over politics in general. It's not instantly defensible, and I don't think there's anything intrinsically unfair about throwing open the primary process to the wider electorate—heck, even include Republican voters. There is a danger of scheming conservatives hijacking the whole process and throwing a whole chunk of votes towards, say, Kucinich, but I don't think that's a serious danger.

Of course, that's all based on the assumption that primary voters pick the candidate they personally want to see in office. In 2004, that wasn't true at all—most primary voters became mini-pundits, basing their picks to a large extent on who they thought would win the general election. (So you saw all sorts of exit polls indicating that most Dean voters actually liked their man, whereas Kerry voters, not so enthused, but attracting to that glowing white obelisk we all called… "electability.") Fair enough, but if that's going to be the dominant trend, I'd almost rather leave the selection to people who are better suited to this sort of guesswork: namely, the delegates themselves. Go back to the old pre-1968 days of smoke-filled rooms and let party officials pick the candidate at the convention. Yeah, it's less democratic, but hey, I'd rather get a Democratic nominee who can win the general election than a nominee chosen by the people. Within reason. Of course, the "wisdom of crowds" thesis suggests that a wide swath of primary voters could well be better at guessing who that electable candidate might be, but I think the bandwagon effect—later states latch on to what former states have done—cancels this out.

(Another possible reason to abolish primaries and go back to smoke-filled rooms? Money. With the exception of Dean and I think one other, though I forget who, since 1976 the candidate who started the primary with the most money has won the election. Also, lots of people like the primaries because it "tests" candidates with various political problems and surprises along the way. Well, humbug. Frankly, I don't really want a nominee who can solve thorny, campaign-type "obstacle courses." I want a president who can, you know, govern. That's not to say the old way of choosing candidates was flawless, but it's worth a revisit.)

Meanwhile, there's no reason why the Democrats can't add things like single-transferable vote schemes to the primary process. If anything, doing so would make the primaries more likely to pick the sort of candidate who can win in a general election—since a candidate who has, say, only the second-most number of first-place votes but the overwhelming majority of second place votes, likely has broader appeal in a wide-open race, and thus more likely to do well in a general election. I think it's been shown via computer simulation that the single-vote method for a wide field—which is what the current primaries do—only picks the Condorcet winner about half the time. (i.e., the candidate who would beat every other candidate one-on-one.) Either the single-transferable vote or even approval voting do much better.

Alternatively, I'd be open to thinking about a primary process like that in New York City (or even in the French presidential election) where all candidates from all parties run in a general primary, and then the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, move onto the general election. This would be especially valuable, I think, in House and Senate races, and make it harder for incumbents to automatically win re-election. On the other hand, you'd have chaos, but I'm all in favor of a bit of chaos.
-- Brad Plumer 5:42 PM || ||