When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) conceded the 2020 Democratic presidential primary to former Vice President Joe Biden, he brought an 18-month-long process to a close in mere seconds. Throughout the course of the primary, instead of focusing on policy, candidates have been throwing brutal jabs at each other. We’ve seen an array of individuals vowing to vote against someone rather than for ideas. We’ve seen the misplaced focus on the early states instead of campaigning nationwide. This Democratic primary is evidence that this country needs to transition to a national primary, as the current process is time-consuming and divisive, and it breeds counterproductive speculation in the media.
One of the most absurd aspects of the American primary process is the fact that it lasts nearly two years — unless you’re former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), for whom it lasted three years. While this extensive campaigning wasn’t always the case, it is becoming our new political reality. For nearly two years we have pulled senators, governors, mayors and other elected officials from their jobs to woo voters across the country. Consequently, senators prioritize campaigning over legislating and governors fundraise rather than govern. Yet we continue to question why our government can’t seem to make any progress. Elected officials and their jobs aren’t the only things being impacted by the drawn-out primary process, however.
The primary process is a disservice to the electorate on both sides of the aisle. The primaries were designed to provide transparency to an often opaque process run by party bosses in choosing their nominee and to provide a quick and easy way to gauge candidate support. To be sure, it succeeded in those regards by eliminating the “invisible primary” system. Wherein party elites chose nominees mostly irrespective of public sentiment, the primaries have created a process that allows voters to speak their minds nationwide on candidates and policy alike.
However, the current primary process is certainly not without its own faults, as it strips voters of the opportunity to choose their preferred candidate if their states’ primaries aren’t held in February or on Super Tuesday. This is because most candidates will suspend their campaigns if their support doesn’t materialize within that time frame, as in the case of former Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Ind.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in their 2020 campaigns. Even if there are two evidently preferred candidates for the party, dissent is still a legitimate and impactful part of the process and deserves acknowledgment. The current, staggered primary calendar deprives voters both generally and specifically as states that vote later are deprived of the vote for their first-choice candidate. This creates a system in which four early competitions, each of whom are demographically and ideologically unrepresentative of the country as a whole, dictate the viability of what should be a national process.
As a result, the general attitude that arises is that the staggered primary process is rigged, incapable of addressing voters’ concerns and injurious to party unity. If it is not improved, the current system will continue to foster animosity and a sense of political malaise. What more does this primary process do than promote divisions within and between the major parties? Debates lack substance and character, skepticism surrounds the primaries’ validity and, in my case, there is a general sense of fatigue about the whole primary process. This primary process might represent our new political normal, but it doesn’t have to be.
To fix America’s primary system, we must adopt a national primary process. In doing so, both parties could allow voters to choose their first-choice candidates. Holding primaries on only one day across the nation, rather than a spread-out endeavor lasting years, could wrap up a damaging primary quickly, thereby healing intra-party divisions and enabling energetic general election campaigns. It is also possible that by having a national primary, the candidates would not advocate such extreme policy positions, which ideally would alleviate some of the country’s political polarization. In short, each individual primary vote would be weighed equally to campaigners and parties alike. With the outweighed influence of a few states no longer dictating the direction of what should be a national campaign, this is what the ideal primary would look like: a focus on concrete policy proposals that could legitimately push agendas forward, the reduced influence of two states with little demographic similarity to the U.S., and perhaps even a desire to center on a candidate’s positions rather than “electability” or name recognition.
Now, this is not to say that such a revised system is without its own flaws. It would be a challenge to essentially facilitate a nationwide Election Day and guarantee expedient results and high enough turnout. No candidate may get an outright majority of delegates or the popular vote, and it could be spun as minimizing smaller states’ influence. These shortcomings, however, can be overcome through rules delegating runoffs, differing rules on proportionality of delegate allocation or funding from the national government to help states run orderly elections. Moreover, there are other issues such as the concern regarding the viability of lesser-known candidates with low fundraising and campaign organization, which without these early state wins would diminish their electoral fortunes. To tackle that issue would mean the U.S. must face the abysmal state of campaign finance, of which name recognition and pandering to donors serve to be more important than concrete policy proposals.
Overall, a national primary process would help both parties improve on transparency, reduce candidate favoritism and allow voters to represent their voices authentically. It would, hopefully at the very least, help ease the tensions of the last two primary seasons for both Democrats and Republicans. Should there be no reforms to the current primary system — I fear for the ever-polarizing nature of American politics. Must we continue promoting candidates we don’t like because they are the better option or the most “electable” and vote against our own interests instead of trying to reform our broken politics?
Demetrios Mammas (23C) is from Atlanta.