The case against American primary elections

Photo by Cole Murphy Student Publications

Unless your name rhymes with Gunter Fiden or Mucker Farlson, it’s unlikely that you are remotely happy with the two leading candidates for the 2024 election, Joe Biden and Donald Trump. According to a national AP poll conducted in August, 75% of respondents said they would not like Biden to run for president in 2024 and 69% said the same about Trump. That’s astounding. In a country of 330 million people, we’ve managed to pick two people the vast majority of people can’t stand. Three cheers for democracy.

But if supermajorities of Americans detest the two major candidates, shouldn’t dog-catcher be the most prestigious position they qualify for? Not in a country with political primaries like ours. And candidates just as bad, or worse, will be our options in the future, unless we heavily reform our current primary system.

In fact, primaries are a recent addition to the presidential nomination process. Before primaries, party leadership would come together in “smoke-filled rooms” at party conventions and determine who the presidential nominee would be. Problematic as that may have been, vetting candidates before they are allowed to represent the “brand” actually makes quite a bit of sense. Political parties are institutions with specific interests — winning elections — so they should be able to select a candidate who will further their own interests. It’s certainly how every other institution works.

However, in 1972, because of a contentious Democratic party convention, the whole system was flipped on its head. Voters, most of whom have no political experience or expertise, were now allowed to choose the nominee for the party in primaries. And just like that, the power of political parties vanished.

The moment the primary system was implemented, all checks on who could run for president were ripped away. The adults in the room could do nothing to stop unqualified candidates from barreling their way to the nomination on the momentum of an angry party base.

We should want parties to have an influence over nominees. A strong Republican party would have stopped an unqualified and unfit Donald Trump from running for president before he even stepped foot on the debate stage in 2016, 2020 and 2022. 

It would be unheard of to have a Republican nominee with a demagogic, authoritarian-tinged rhetoric, much less one who attempted a coup. It certainly isn’t a recipe to be popular with most of the country.

And what about the Democrats? Biden would have been stopped from running before he could shuffle behind a podium and mumble his way through his first speech. 

And Democratic leadership would have found an alternative candidate who was young(ish), experienced and articulate, rather than leaving Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as the only opponents to Biden, both of whom have more in common with your crazy neighbor than they do a president of the United States.

Strong parties, where those inside the party can make decisions, would not saddle Americans with two wildly-unpopular choices for president. Why? Because party leadership would do what all leadership of institutions does: look out for their own interests. 

And the party’s interest, of course, is winning elections, and you win elections by appealing to the widest
swath of voters. That’s it. 

But nominees are not being chosen for who can appeal to the most voters in a general election, but who can best appeal to the narrow slice of the electorate that votes in the primary. 

And most of the time, this small group of voters is much more radical than the rest of the country or even the majority of the party members.

This is how we got stuck with Biden and Trump. Both terrible candidates, both nominated by parties seemingly determined to lose. If we want to ensure a situation like this doesn’t happen again, and we want to ensure that someone truly insidious and authoritarian doesn’t come to power, the system has to change.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go back to smoke-filled rooms. As Brookings Institute senior fellow Elaine Kamarck writes, we need to introduce a system of peer review to American politics. 

One way she suggests we implement this is by having party leadership cast ballots of “confidence” or “no-confidence” for each candidate before primary voting actually starts. If a candidate does not get 15% “confidence” votes, then they would be ineligible for becoming the nominee of the party.

This is just a quick summary of one possibility out of many, and there are versions of this that assert party power to greater and lesser degrees. 

But, the fact remains that something must be done. Parties must be able to push back against poor candidates. Biden and Trump are bad enough. 

However, we are leaving ourselves open to nominating someone even worse. 

As much as we value “the people’s choice,” if we want to protect our country from those that have no business running it, “We The People” are going to have to stop insisting our vote should be the only vote that counts.