Guest Opinion: Presidential primaries need a shake-up
Published 6:57 am Monday, August 14, 2023
By John Hood
I know you may find this news depressing, but we’re only five months away from the first votes in the 2024 presidential election. Our current primary system is absurd. The contests start way too early. And their location is unfair to large swaths of American voters.
But that doesn’t mean the system ought to be radically changed.
Don’t get me wrong. I favor reforming the system, along lines to be discussed below. It’s just that traditions, even fairly new ones, deserve some thoughtful deference. In particular, I think there is still a good case for beginning the presidential-nomination process in less-populated states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Like” is not the same as “such as,” of course. While I think Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t necessarily bad places to hold early contests, they shouldn’t enjoy a permanent status as electoral gatekeepers. Nor is it sufficient, as has now been accomplished, to bring in Nevada from the southwest and South Carolina from the south to balance things out. They still come later, giving Iowa and New Hampshire excessive deference. I also think that moving populous Michigan up to the fourth position (on February 27) was unwise, as was making California, Texas and our own North Carolina part of a “gargantuan Tuesday” set of primaries on March 5.
Less-populous states allow a larger number of candidates to be viable. They don’t require as much campaign cash to reach voters via expensive broadcast markets. Mail, earned media, online tools, endorsements and personal outreach remain viable tactics in them. Also, voters in smaller states are more likely to appreciate the national spotlight and take their political power seriously, while those in larger states are apt to see national media coverage and campaign swings as more routine and less exciting.
To get back to the problem, however, the Iowa and New Hampshire stranglehold on the process needs to be broken. Don’t count on prominent national politicians to make reform a high priority, as too many of them consider themselves to be future presidential aspirants and thus don’t want to alienate local politicians and voters in the two states, just in case a reform effort falls short. Perhaps retired politicians could make primary-process reform an early cause, to be formulated and promoted by a diverse panel of current officeholders, civic and business leaders, and political scientists.
My preference would be a process that looks something like this. Take the 20 states with populations between 4.5 million and 1 million (there is such a thing as too sparsely populated a state to play effectively in this game – I’m looking at you, Wyoming and Vermont). Two years before each election cycle, randomly place them on one of five election days to stretch between early February and early April. Each date, in other words, will feature four primaries or caucuses. Such an arrangement would mean you keep the same states voting early every four years, which is good for building strong party networks and experienced primary/caucus voters, without giving any state a permanent primacy in the schedule.
Some have argued either that such a series of early votes ought to be concentrated in a particular region, to make it easier for candidates to campaign and create a sort of regional “voice,” or be carefully balanced so that there are always states voting in multiple regions. I used to like the regional-primary idea, but now I think it would be best to distribute the states randomly each time. That reduces potential conflict, it seems to me, and introduces a healthy dose of unpredictability.
Would we get better presidential nominees if we gave the likes of Arkansas, Connecticut, Utah, Oregon, Oklahoma and New Mexico the opportunity to go first in the balloting? I don’t know. I do know that the current process is rightfully resented, but that moving to early primaries by large states or regional blocs isn’t the right answer. Let’s stay small, but mix things up a bit.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.