One of the themes of the Sean Hannity show in the last few weeks has been the host’s insistence that the processes by which the Republican party selects delegates for the national convention is flawed. He has bashed the selection process – in particular the Colorado method – and supported not just a uniform standard for the party but also a single primary day. With due respect for a man who has built his career in political commentary into an empire on radio and cable television, he is mistaken.
Our Federal System
The United States is not a unitary national government but a federal republic composed of independent states. When it comes to elections we don’t have a single national election but fifty state elections. In much the same way, the Republican party at the national level is an umbrella organization for a collection of parties from the states and territories. This is also true of the Democrats and other ‘national’ parties. While they work together on elections for the presidency the state parties have their own leadership structures and layers of officials and party activists down to the local level.
As independent entities these state parties have the right to decide how to select their delegates to the national convention. First in the nation Iowa holds caucuses to select delegates and here the Republican process is far less convoluted than the one used by the Democrats. Delegates are awarded proportionally but even then the process is far from over.
States that hold primaries exchange the raucous caucus for a more traditional secret ballot election. State parties can decide whether to award all delegates to the person with the most votes even if they fall short of a majority (plurality), or require the candidate to win a majority of the vote in the state to claim all the delegates. Depending on the preferences of the state party, delegates may be split between the statewide vote leader and winners of congressional districts. Open primaries allow voters with a loose connection to the party, or from the opposing party, to have a say and can also affect the results.
Party conventions are the most obscure process and do not include all voters. Conventions are usually populated by party officials and activists which are usually the people most invested in the success of the party and nominee. While portrayed as an effort to disenfranchise people by turning away interested voters the reverse is more often true. Rosslyn Smith at American Thinker explains “the sad fact is that many times, delegate/alternate slots to political conventions go unfilled because there are not enough people willing to participate.” Again, party insiders are struggling to find participants not turn people away.
State parties need to be the ones that make the decisions about delegate selection.
No “Primary Day”
What is so bad about the idea of a single “Primary Day” where the whole country votes at once? Lots.
The whole point of a primary calendar that stretches for months and is kicked off in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire is to give long-shot candidates an opportunity to make their case to the voters. If a candidate doesn’t have a large war chest but is willing to do the hard work of retail politics in Iowa’s 99 counties or countless New Hampshire diners they can reach enough voters to come to the attention of the national electorate.
A single national “Primary Day” would play into the hands of the best funded candidate or the one who could get the most media attention. Candidates without the resources to get their message in front of the voters would get swamped and may only win their home state or small states where they have been able to connect with the voters.
Let’s set aside Donald Trump for the moment because he has been a wild card from the beginning. In a nationwide “Primary Day” the winner this year would likely have been Jeb Bush who had been able to assemble a substantial campaign war chest that far exceeded his next closest competitor. Jeb! of course needs to win Ohio on the way to 1600 Pennsylvania so the choice of a running mate is obvious.
Imagine now what a Bush/Kasich ticket would be like:
“Immigration is an act of love… Steinle who?”
“There is a book. It has an old part and a new part. In the new part Jesus would want us to help the downtrodden. That’s why is support Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.”
Is it safe to say that with the present mood of the Republican electorate that this ticket would go down to defeat?
A single, nationwide “Primary Day” might include more voters but would actually deny the people a choice.
The Republican party does not need to scrap its current system. State parties need to make their method of delegate selection clear to the public and candidates need to make sure that they are positioned to compete in every state they believe they can win. As the saying goes: “lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” Whining after the fact doesn’t help win votes and it gives the people who are half paying attention the impression that the process is illegitimate.
Democracy is a messy process. There are days where it might seem like a good idea to get things over with and just select a candidate but the primary season serves as practice for the general campaign, which itself is practice for the presidency. A candidate that cannot handle a hostile reporter will not be able to deal with Vladimir Putin or the government in Iran. A candidate with skeletons in their closet may fall apart at the last minute and hand the election to the opposition. A competitive primary season will help the winner polish their message and seal the deal with the voters come November.
Let’s keep the current system.