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Our primary problem
Picking candidates is too important to be left to the party base
I’ve been meaning to write about primaries for a while and this week seems like a good time. The trigger for my muse was the news this week that Marjorie Taylor Greene was being assigned to several committees by newly-elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
This was news for a couple of reasons. First, it comes almost exactly two years after a bipartisan House vote suspended Greene, who I like to call “Empty G,” from her committee assignments for her outlandish behavior and comments. Second, it is news because her new committee assignments are much more plum positions than her old assignments on the Budget Committee and the Education and Labor Committee.
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No, rather than the drudgery of those committees, Greene is now on the Oversight and Accountability Committee, which will be the launchpad for the House GOP’s myriad planned investigations into everything Biden, and the Homeland Security Committee. In congressional terms, this is the big time, and that’s especially true for a publicity hound like MTG.
When I saw that Greene, who recently said that the insurrection would have succeeded if she had been in charge, was on the Homeland Security Committee, my first reaction was to wonder when we started putting threats to homeland security in on the committee that oversees protecting the homeland. It reminded me of old Republican complaints about Iran being placed on the UN Human Rights Council. Like the old adage about the fox guarding the henhouse, it’s not a smart choice.
The connection with primaries is that someone like Greene never should have been elected in the first place, never mind been sent back to Congress for a second term. The fact that Greene could survive the nomination process not once but twice is a strong indication that our system is badly broken. Today that broken nominating system is built around primary elections.
If you’re like me, you don’t remember anything other than primaries as a means of nominating candidates, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, it wasn’t that way until fairly recently. FiveThirtyEight has a recent podcast that details the history of the current primary system, which only dates back to the turmoil of the late 1960s. Prior to that, primary elections existed, but they weren’t the binding selection process that they are today.
Even today, the two parties operate under different sets of rules for primary elections. In the Republican Party, many states are winner-take-all, allowing the top candidate to take all of the nominating delegates even if he doesn’t win a majority. This was intended to give establishment candidates an edge over insurgents, but in 2016 it allowed Donald Trump to build up an insurmountable lead as the traditional Republican candidates split the non-Trump vote despite the fact that Trump did not win a majority in any of the early primaries. His big wins came later in the process when the outcome was inevitable. In 2020, a number of Republican states didn’t even allow challengers to Trump to appear on the ballot.
On the Democratic side, the opposite tack is taken with the use of superdelegates. Superdelegates have often been considered “undemocratic,” and they are, but the reform was instituted in the early 1980s after a decade of dismal showings beginning with George McGovern’s 49-state loss to Richard Nixon in 1972 and ending with Jimmy Carter’s 44-state loss to Ronald Reagan.
As Elaine Kamarck, one of the members of the Hunt commission that invented the superdelegate system said, Prior “reforms were aimed at opening up the party to other factions, particularly the anti-war faction in the late 60s and early 70s. But that didn’t mean that they wanted to cut out the entire party apparatus, which is what happened. A lot of what the Hunt Commission talked about was restoring the balance at the nominating convention.”
Superdelegates are at-large delegates to the Democratic convention who can vote for any candidate they want. These are typically Democratic Party officeholders or party leaders. While the system is undemocratic, it likely helped prevent rank-and-file Democratic primary voters from nominating Bernie Sanders in 2016 (although Hillary won without relying on superdelegates) and a similar system could have helped keep the GOP from falling into the hands of Donald Trump.
It’s fair to say that Hillary Clinton was not the best candidate that Democrats could have picked in 2016, but most people would probably say she was preferable to Bernie Sanders. Both parties faced insurgent campaigns and reacted to them differently with the Democrats fighting off Bernie, who would probably have performed worse than Clinton, but the Republican safeguards backfired and benefitted Donald Trump.
I think it is also fair to say that candidate quality has deteriorated in the years since the primary nominating systems were implemented. We have gotten some really good candidates, but especially in recent years, we’ve also gotten some really bad ones that the smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear would have made sure never made it on the ballot. We can be pretty certain that if party establishments were still in charge of picking candidates, we would never have gotten the choice between the rock and the hard place that we had in Trump vs. Hillary.
The fact is that under the current primary system, there is no check-and-balance of effective gatekeepers to keep fringe candidates from running. This has led to a host of embarrassing candidates over the years, including a neo-Nazi who secured the Republican nomination for an Illinois congressional seat in 2018. He lost but plenty of fringe candidates who get on the ballot go on to win, especially in deeply partisan districts.
The most recent glaring example is George Santos. Santos, who seemingly lies about everything, including his name (does Anthony Devolder ring a bell?). Santos won the nomination unopposed in the Republican primary for an open seat in New York’s third district. This week, the congressman was assigned to the Small Business Committee and Science, Space, and Technology Committee, where the internet hopes his prior experience as an astronaut will be helpful. (That’s a joke, by the way.)
How did such a prodigious liar get elected? Santos isn’t the first liar to get elected to Congress, but he may be one of the most prolific. Most of Santos’s deceptions didn’t become public knowledge until after the election. I had initially thought that Santos represented a failure of establishment Republicans to vet the candidate, but the truth now seems worse.
The New York Times reported this week prominent New York Republicans, including Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican, were aware of Santos’s lies through a vulnerability study conducted in late 2022. After the study revealed his problems, he was advised to drop out of the race, but instead hired new staffers with Stefanik’s help and made his former campaign workers sign nondisclosure agreements. In other words, the Republican establishment covered up the truth.
That brings us back to the question of why primary elections are giving us worse candidates. The most obvious reason is that the voters are electing bad candidates.
The examples I’ve given so far have been Republicans, but Democrats make similar mistakes. For example, Georgia Democrats nominated Stacy Abrams again in 2022. Abrams is a popular Democrat, but she is not a good campaigner and she is too far left to run against a strong Republican candidate in Georgia. The smarter move would have been to nominate a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, but Georgia’s Democratic primary voters are unlikely to do that.
Primary elections are mostly caucuses of the party faithful. Primary voters are tuned in to partisan new outlets and talking points. If you ask the average primary voter, I’m sure that most of them would tell you that the worst member of their party is better than the best member of the opposition. In this toxic stew of partisanship, fringe politics is rewarded and moderates are punished.
To some, the answer might be to revert to the days when nominees were picked in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors. The problem there is that we’ve gone so far down the radicalism road that the party establishments are made up of members of the political fringes. I don’t think that the establishment of either party is representative of the average voter… or even the average voter in their party. This radicalization of the parties makes it difficult to have gatekeepers to lock out the crazies.
While the Democrats implemented their superdelegate reform to help prevent radicals from nominating far-left candidates, the far-left now dominates the Democratic leadership. That means that superdelegates won’t necessarily be used for the purpose for which they were originally intended.
On the Republican side, even as Trump and MAGA have become less popular, both inside and outside the party, the Republican establishment is still dominated by Trump loyalists. It is difficult to imagine that top Republicans would intervene against MAGA nominations at this point. Pandora’s box has been open for too long and the Republican base, which is still fond of Trump, is wagging the dog.
So the voters are picking lousy candidates and it is unlikely that current party establishments would pick better ones. Where does that leave us?
I think that ranked-choice voting is an idea that holds promise at least in theory. Under this system, a voter ranks his choices among all available candidates rather than simply voting for one person. I was surprised to learn that ranked-choice voting has already been implemented in 12 states and is in the process of being set up in another four states.
If a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, then the election ends. If no one wins, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s voters go to their second choice. The process continues until there is a winner. In effect, it is an instant runoff.
In theory, ranked-choice voting (RCV) would help to solve the problem of having two bad candidates because voters would not be penalized for voting for third-party candidates. For example, if a voter didn’t like either major party candidate, he could vote Libertarian (or Green or whatever) as his first choice, followed by his other preferences in order. There might even be multiple candidates from the same party.
This was the case in Alaska’s House race last year and a special election in which Democrat Mary Peltola defeated two Republicans and a Libertarian. The fact that the Republican vote was split didn’t mean that Peltola would automatically win because when Nick Begich, the third-place finisher, was eliminated, his voters’ second choices kicked in. Apparently, quite a few Begich voters preferred the Democrat to Sarah Palin, the top Republican finisher, however.
One of the big hopes about RCV is that it will provide alternatives to radical candidates. For example, when Herschel Walker was nominated in Georgia last year, many conservatives didn’t like him, but they had few options. They could hold their noses and vote Walker, vote for the Democrat, vote Libertarian, or not vote. When the race went to a runoff, their options became even more limited.
If RCV had been in place, voters could have ranked the Libertarian first, Walker second, and then the Democrat Warnock. By providing a means for a protest vote, Walker might have won in the end if he could convince enough voters to make him their second choice. It might also have allowed Republicans to add a second candidate when it became apparent that Walker was a disaster, giving Republican voters a more palatable option.
In practice, rank-choice voting has problems, but they are not insurmountable. First, it is more complicated than traditional voting. It’s already difficult to get people to vote and complicating matters may discourage them even further. Ranking choices on a slate of elections could also make voting slower and it is questionable whether the practice actually encourages moderation, especially in states that lean strongly towards one party or the other. Some also argue that voters should be allowed to reconsider their options with a separate runoff election.
Ranked-choice voting is gaining in popularity and acceptance. I’m at least ranked-choice curious, but I’m not convinced that it will save us from the radicals who dominate the primaries. At the moment, however, it does seem to be the best idea for an alternative that we have.
If we want to prevent the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and George Santoses of both parties from getting elected and sitting on important committees, we need to reform our primary election process that rewards extremism. That is going to take convincing the parties that the status quo is not working for them.
The one thing that may do that, even more than electing embarrassingly bad candidates, is losing a lot of elections. Losing sparked reform from the Democrats after the turbulent 60s and the McGovern and Carter routs. If modern Republicans in particular are smart, they should be looking at some options to stem their recent MAGA losses.
DEBT LIMIT BRINKSMANSHIP RETURNS: The federal government reached the debt limit today and CNN reports that the Treasury Department is resorting to extraordinary measures to keep the government open. We’ve had numerous debt limit battles and government shutdowns in the past, but what makes this one different is the character of the new Republican House that is dominated by Freedom Caucus members.
The problem here is that Freedom Caucus members are hardliners on deficits and spending (unless a Republican is president) and appear to be willing to risk a national default to force spending cuts. Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) is even pushing for benefit cuts to Medicare and Social Security, treading on dangerous electoral ground, while Chip Roy (R-Texas) favors cuts to both defense and nondefense discretionary spending. (Spoiler alert: It’s the mandatory entitlement spending that is the real problem.)
When asked if he was prepared to allow a default, Freedcom Caucus chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) was circumspect, saying, “We can’t just keep doing the same thing under the same conditions with the same management and expect different outcomes. The American people are sick and tired of this endless debt increasing.”
This debt limit fight could be an ugly one and it might very well lead to a default and associated economic distress. David’s rule of thumb is that whoever causes a government shutdown, loses.
While I oppose unnecessary deficit spending and government profligacy, I believe that the debt limit should be increased. We aren’t talking about cutting spending when we talk about default, we are talking about refusing to pay for spending that is already authorized or money that is already spent. That doesn’t sound conservative to me.
Are the Republicans willing to default to make Biden look bad on the economy? Stay tuned.
TWEET OF THE DAY: Today’s tweet of the day is a palate cleanser. This guy, who is obviously insane, goes paragliding on a couch. I’m not sure but his snacks seem to be more securely attached to the aircraft than he is.
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