This article was published in the May 2016 Edition of Der Parvenu
The rise and fall of the primaries system between 1968 and today, from a political revolution to a vector of inequalities.
August 28th, 1968. 10,000 anti-war protesters gathered at Grant Park, Chicago. They were met by twice as many men from the Chicago police, National Guard and US Army. Early in the evening, the troops charged. Hundreds of protesters were wounded and arrested, and it was reported that the police used such quantities of tear gas that the whole town center was besmoked. Some journalists covering the event were beaten and arrested; their colleagues called this day “The Police Riot” and compared the scenes of violence to a gulag. At the same time, a war of a different type was unfolding at the Democratic National Convention, a few yards away. The delegates had to nominate a presidential candidate who would unite the party, torn between supporters of the Vietnam War and pacifists. The campaign had been a descent into hell: Robert Kennedy, brother of the former President and likely nominee, was assassinated in June, a few months only after Martin Luther King. During the Convention debates, the tension heated, as delegates and journalists got dragged off stage or beaten by police. By the end, the delegates chose Hubert H. Humphrey, who was supported by the traditional power blocs. The protests intensified, and the Hilton Hotel (where Humphrey resided) was invaded by police after protesters hid there to escape tear gas. In total, 1100 protesters and bystanders were wounded and several hundred arrested. The Convention was a fiasco, and Humphrey lost the general elections to Nixon. Today, the 1968 campaign still has a bitter taste for the Democrats.
The events considerably changed the American political system. The McGovern-Fraser Commission was called into life shortly after the Convention, to assess the changes which had to be made by the Democratic Party. 9 months later, it issued a report demanding that delegates for the Convention, the electors, be no longer chosen by the party elite and opaque caucuses. In response, in most states, the local party leaders, who are free to decide on the date and mode of the elections, chose to adopt the primaries system, which is seen as more democratic and transparent. Today, primaries are the preferred delegate selection system, as only 10 states still run caucuses, a direct heritage of the Revolution and the first elections in 1789, 1792 and 1796. At that time, only two parties (the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party) existed, and their presidential candidates were usually elected by the congressmen and other elite members. In 1832, the Anti-Masonic Party, which didn’t have any congressmen yet, decided to organize a nationwide election in order to choose a candidate. This created the first Convention as well as the first primary, even though it still was far from its actual form. But the primaries had to wait until 1910 before being chosen as Oregon’s preferred system of election. Ten years later, 20 states had adopted it as well, and the 1969 McGovern-Fraser report boosted its usage.
Indeed, the primary system has a significant advantage over the caucuses, during which party followers gather in their towns to elect delegates by hand. It is transparent and easily set up: a polling booth and a ballot box are all that is needed, as voters simply have to cast their vote and return home, as do their European counterparts. In open primaries, used in 18 states, anyone who chooses to do so can vote, whatever their party affiliation. To the contrary, closed primaries (in 21 states), only members of a party can vote for the party’s candidates. Finally, the hybrid (a.k.a. semi-closed) system allows independent voters to take part in the election of their choice. Caucuses are only open to party members who have the time and energy to debate and vote for the delegates who will then elect the President.
It is crucial to understand how the date and type of the elections are chosen. The Constitution never mentions either the political party system nor the elections of the delegates, meaning that it is up to the states and parties to decide for themselves. Thus, it is the party leaders in a state who set the type (primary or caucus) and the date of the election. The latter setting is crucial: the earlier a state holds its elections, the more will it weigh in the overall results. Indeed, the first elections are a stress test for the candidates, who will gain in momentum and media visibility if they achieve high scores. This may be described as the snowball effect: a candidate who wins over many states at the beginning will probably fare well in the latter elections, unless he commits some decisive mistakes. And, by doing so, he’ll show that he’s a viable candidate, who’ll get interviews, votes – and money. This is why Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada are so keen on organizing the first elections in February. Another way for states to gain on influence is for a few of them to hold their elections at the same time, as they do on Super Tuesday (first Tuesday of March) since 1984.
The problem is that bigger, and more representative states like California or New Jersey, who hold their primaries in June, have basically no say in the elections, since they will simply add more delegates to the leading candidate’s pool: most primaries take place between February and March, so that a big chunk of the population (like the 39 million Californians) simply confirm without deciding. Another often-voiced critique concerns the Democratic Party’s superdelegates. In 2016, 717 unpledged Democratic delegates (distinguished party leaders, governors, senators, congressmen, etc…), representing 15% of all delegates, will decide who they vote for independently of the popular vote. They represent the party establishment, and will thus rally behind Hillary Clinton, which can be seen as undemocratic. Furthermore, the US
presidential election system has many other imperfections. Because of the intermediation of the delegates, a candidate can lose even though he has a majority of the popular vote, just as Al Gore lost to Bush Jr. in 2000. The PAC and Super-PAC funding system is also a severe blow to democratic principles, as a rich contributor has more power in an election than a simple voter.
Many reform ideas have been proposed, amongst others a reform of the electoral college to force delegates to vote for the popular choice; or even a simple abolition of the delegate system. The 11 states having signed the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” agreement plan on awarding all of their delegates to the candidate winning the national popular vote, but more states (representing the majority) need to join them in order for the agreement to have legal force. The Bayh-Celler Amendment, which proposed to elect the candidate with at least 40% of the popular vote, was accepted by the House of Representatives in 1969 (after the McGovern-Fraser recommendation), but was filibustered in Senate, and failed. Overturning the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision (which confirmed and accepted the role of “big money” during the elections” via constitutional amendments was also proposed, as well as many different forms of funding reforms. But, for now, nothing has moved.
To conclude, one may affirm that the primaries system did much to democratize the US presidential elections system, but that it’s still not enough. Its failures probably played an important role in the popular rejection of the system, leading to anti-establishment voting with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, one of which proposes more democracy, the other less.