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Primarily Speaking

Josh Marshall moots an idea for mild primary reform. Frankly, I'm not a fan of the whole primary concept as currently conceived and think it needs a much more radical overhaul. If you look at the quality of leadership before and after the dawning of the contemporary system (roughly speaking, 1964 and before and 1972 and after, with '68 standing as a weird middle ground), I think the reformed system correlates pretty clearly with decline on the merits. That said, I don't have a really operationalizable alternative in mind at the moment. I would, however, like people to start expanding their concept of what is and is not an acceptable way to choose a nominee, so here's a fully fleshed-out semi-serious alternative:

The Primary Elimination Tournament:

You start out with your list of candidates. Then using a random process, you put together a tournament bracket as seen in the playoffs of professional sports, allocating first round byes as needed to make the math work. Then each round one pair is randomly assigned a state in which their first content will take place. So you might have Dean versus Lieberman in Idaho, Clark versus Kucinich in Oregon, Edwards versus Sharpton in Florida, and Kerry versus Moseley-Braun in Oklahoma. Each round one state votes on January 15. Then you take your four winners, randomly assign some new states, with the round one states being ineligible. So it's Dean versus Clark in Rhode Island and Kerry versus Edwards in Michigan. Everyone votes on February 15. The winners of these contests go head-to-head in a death match in yet another randomly assigned state on March 30.

You could also envision a possible modification for a round robin tournament. Indeed, the whole voting concept may be outdated. You could just get together a list of every registered Democrat in the country, then take a statistically valid random sample of 1,000 or so of these people fly them all to a big hotel in Dayton (shades of Balkan diplomacy), and tell them they're not leaving until some candidate has the support of 600 people. Important elected officials, interest group leaders, and consultant types could make themselves available to hang around the premises and offer their off-the-record opinions.

December 22, 2004 | Permalink


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» Primaries and the BCS from Left Oblique
Matt Yglesias half-seriously suggests replacing the Democratic primary with a playoff. Then, he changes direction and suggests something that should be quite familiar to college football fans: You could just get together a list of every registere... [Read More]

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Tracked on Dec 22, 2004 5:22:02 PM


I've thought recently that statistically sound surveying would be a better way to conduct elections than actually voting.

Posted by: Kenny Easwaran | Dec 22, 2004 1:04:55 AM

I said it after the election and will say it now: if there's one thing we need to work on, it's congressional redistricting. It's absurd, for instance, that in California, holder of about a seventh of House seats, not one race was competitive. I understand that the incumbency effect would still probably take place even if congressional maps were redrawn in a non-partisan way and that many representatives would stay in for other reasons, but I have to think it would be better than it currently is. And this shouldn't be just a federal thing: it should happen at the state level, too.

I'm not sure how this can be accomplished. At both the state and federal levels, there would be all sorts of legal problems. It's not something that could be accomplished by exective order, as I would like.

Posted by: Brian | Dec 22, 2004 2:02:46 AM

For drama and sporting interest--which seem to have diminished along with the quality of leadership--a dose of March Madness would be hard to beat. Debate ratings, if nothing else, might show signs of life. And it does neatly solve the intertwined problems of state priority and overly-long initial campaigns followed by breakneck later ones. Not bad for a semi-serious alternative.

But the sortition-based convention option is the one that really intrigues me. In fact, the more one lets this idea roll around in one's head, the cooler the sound it makes. New vistas of application present themselves on all sides.

Consider: For 5th century (BCE) Athenians, elections were a rather oligarchical compromise with democratic practice--the rich and well-born would always have the edge--while random selection was the real deal. And we are already quite attached to a somewhat-compromised version of the idea, when it comes to deciding an accused person's fate.

So, why not apply the same principle to, say, legislation? Is it likely that legislators chosen more-or-less at random would be on average more incompetent in policy judgments and/or less public spirited than what we mostly get now? Think of it as the ultimate campaign finance reform. Should generate positive externalities for things like public education reform too. (No future committee chairperson left behind?)

Credit where credit is due: cf. Callenbach and Phillips.

Posted by: Amileoj | Dec 22, 2004 2:08:30 AM

"If you look at the quality of leadership before and after the dawning of the contemporary system (roughly speaking, 1964 and before and 1972 and after, with '68 standing as a weird middle ground), I think the reformed system correlates pretty clearly with decline on the merits."

You romanticize the quality of candidates chosen by the pre-'68 process.

Here's what the smoke-filled rooms produced in non-incumbent election years:

John Kennedy '60
Adlai Stevenson '56
Adlai Stevenson '52
Franklin Roosevelt '32
Al Smith '28
John Davis '24
James Cox '20

With two exceptions, it's not a stellar crop.

Any system that nominated a guy twice whose most famous quote is "I'd rather be right than President" isn't a model for the future.


Also, FYI, '68 was conducted under the old rules. It was obviously a bizarre year for other reasons, but the primary rules were much the same as they'd been in '60. It was the post-68 reforms that enabled McGovern and Carter the next two times out.

And it's finally worth noting that ever since the McGovern and Carter insurgencies, the outcome of the new system has been very similar to what it would've been with the pre-68 system. In other words, the consensus establishment candidate wins every time. The primary voters ratified the consensus establishment choices of Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, and Kerry.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 22, 2004 2:18:27 AM

I think the bracketed system would be difficult to pull off because states vary so greatly -- in size, in important issues. You could well have a strong, viable candidate knocked out early just because he/she was randomly assigned a bad matchup for a particular state.

The sample system also makes me a little nervous, but it might work. Maybe you'd need 2000 or 5000 to try to avoid the possibility that the specific group makeup could overly influence the deliberation process.

How about doing an election in one state from each of the geographical regions (north, south, east, midwest, southwest, plains, pacific) in random order, with a week or so between each election, followed by a national election of all remaining states? This would limit the frontrunner effect but give a chance for lesser known candidates to make names for themselves, and at the same time giving us an idea how each candidate fares in every region of the country.

Posted by: Royko | Dec 22, 2004 2:32:26 AM

A bracket system could be kind of fun. The NFL playoff system may not be the best model for reasons Royko points out, but maybe a best-of-three-state series in the first round, followed by a best of five, then a final best of seven series. That way, upset winners would have to prove they're not just a three state fluke, while favorites wouldn't be able to simply coast through the later games (I mean primaries). Also, the final contest would pitt winner against winner, rather than favorite against last-loser-standing, which would help with the suspense and entertainment value.

Posted by: jim s | Dec 22, 2004 6:40:23 AM

The BCS bowl system could fix this ...

Posted by: Jason Ligon | Dec 22, 2004 8:54:43 AM

I like the idea of bringing together 1000 randomly selected Democrats. We could call it the Democratic National Convention.

Posted by: jam | Dec 22, 2004 9:01:58 AM

My only concern about the random-sample technique is that I want our next Democratic nominee to have some experience winning a few elections outside of his or her home state before going head-to-head against the Republican nominee. Therefore, I would like to propose the following modification:

Each of these thousand randomly selected Democrats gets to cast two votes for two different candidates. Nobody leaves the hotel until one candidate gets at least 600 votes (the designated "front-runner") and another candidate gets at least 501 (the designated "insurgent").

Then the front-runner and insurgent can duke it out in the primaries, and all the other candidates can stop wasting their time running for President and concentrate on who they're going to throw their endorsements to.

Posted by: Seth Gordon | Dec 22, 2004 9:49:00 AM

Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll did a lot of work on designing mathematically fair tournaments and elections.

Posted by: me2i81 | Dec 22, 2004 9:49:29 AM

I realize MY's suggestion is made in jest, but I'll bite, simply because the current system is even more absurd. One necessary rule: the randomly assigned state can't be the home state of either candidate. And to win the support of the punditocracy for this plan, rather than randomly assigning candidate matches, TV talking heads and newspaper columnists would get to rank the candidates, and the top seed would get the bye if needed.

Posted by: bragan | Dec 22, 2004 9:51:33 AM

Sort of a variation on Matt's idea I had awhile back. Divide the states into three groups: small, medium & large. Then set up a schedule, something like this:

Week 1: 1 small state
Week 2: 1 medium state
Week 3: 1 medium and 2 small states
Week 4: 1 large and 1 small state
Week 5: 2 medium and 3 small states
Week 6: 1 medium and 2 small states
Week 7 (Super Tuesday): 2 large, 4 medium and 8 small states
Week 8: California

Or something along those lines. Anyway, the idea is to have a well-planned primary schedule, but with the early states varying from election to election. And you would pick the states as late as possible, so the candidates don't spend 8 months running around Iowa or New Hampshire (or Idaho or Delaware).

The real strength of this idea, in my opinion, is that if you sell it right you might be able to swing a deal by combining floating early primaries with getting rid of (or modifying) the electoral college. This is something solid to offer the small states in return for giving up some power in the general election. Iowa and New Hampshire won't like it, but you don't need 50 states for a constitutional amendment.

Posted by: Devin McCullen | Dec 22, 2004 9:54:14 AM

It matters less what kind of system you use than the quality of the candidates you have running. The Democrats would be better served spending less time repeatedly tweaking the electoral system and spending more time and effort (and money) at the state and local level building a good farm system of potential national leaders.

I could go for Dean as DNC chair for that reason, rather than yet another Bob Forehead who goes around kissing up for corporate contributions.

Posted by: David W. | Dec 22, 2004 9:55:24 AM

I don't much like the bracket system. What's wrong with rolling regional primaries? I agree that the primary system needs major overhaul. What we have now is totally irrational, and does not produce the best results.

Posted by: janeboatler | Dec 22, 2004 10:03:16 AM

How about declaring all candidates from all parties free agents and letting the parties bid on them. If the Greens want to put up the most money for Bush, he would be their nominee.

Look at the great shape major league baseball is in.

Posted by: howie14 | Dec 22, 2004 10:28:04 AM

Why can't each state have a primary at
roughly the same time so that everybody
gets to vote? As an adult resident of Virginia for over 4 decades, I have never had a voice in who my party chooses.

Posted by: Self-Negotiator | Dec 22, 2004 10:47:01 AM

The 1968 primaries weren't "weird" -- they were rendered useless by means of assassination.

Posted by: Slothrop | Dec 22, 2004 11:02:47 AM

"The primary voters ratified the consensus establishment choices of Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, and Kerry."

I don't think Clinton was the choice of the liberal establishment ... people like Ted Kennedy might have preferred Tsongas or Harkin. And if the DLC is your establishment, Gore was the establishment candidate in 1988.

Still, point well taken, that the establishment has effectively won the primary every time since 1984.

Posted by: niq | Dec 22, 2004 11:16:45 AM

"I don't think Clinton was the choice of the liberal establishment...

Not talkin' about the liberal establishment. I'm talkin' about the Party establishment that outright picked the winner pre-72.

"Still, point well taken, that the establishment has effectively won the primary every time since 1984."

It's interesting that the rules were slightly re-jiggered after '80 to partially roll back the post-68 changes. Hart actually won more delegates in elections than Mondale did, for example.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 22, 2004 11:36:00 AM

The problem is not the Democratic candidates. The problem for any Democratic candidate is primarily the media. The GOP has its own media (Fox News) and its own radio network that sets up its own echo chamber. The Democratic Party needs to set up a media network to counter the GOP. That media network must sell in Red States. Air America is fine for the blue states. However, the Democrats must have their own media that delivers a message of patriotism and values. As Democrats, we value work, families, tolerance, liberties and responsibility. We believe that the government should work to help people meet their responsibilities and improve their economic situation.

Without our own positive message machine, we will continue to be outmaneuvered by the GOP echo chamber that labels all Democrats as lazy, irresponsible, immoral and unpatriotic.

Posted by: bakho | Dec 22, 2004 11:48:37 AM

The political parties should be selecting their own candidates. That means (to me, at least) that each party should have a convention, made up of elected delegates, where the candidate is selected. And, no "super delegates" should be allowed. I am dead set against the primary system, where uninformed voters, voters from other parties, and easily swayed TV watchers pick the candidates. I also believe that any "third party" that has a presidential candidate running should be required to use the same convention system. But, I agree with bakho that with the GOP control of the media, especially TV, no Democratic candidate has a great chance.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Dec 22, 2004 11:58:15 AM

I know...let's replace primaries with blogaries, in which blog commenters get to vote on the candidates. Start with the Matt Yglesias Caucus, say, then move on to the Pandagon Blogary. Work up to the all-important Kos and Eschaton Blogaries. That would give us better candidates in the general election.

Okay, so this isn't even semi-serious. I have no idea how to improve the system, and I haven't seen a single idea from anybody else that seems likely to do it.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Dec 22, 2004 12:02:19 PM

How about some non-geographical primaries? After all, the whole geographical orientation of our political system is an 18th century holdover. "New Jersey resident" is about 37th in my list of self-descriptors (and no, it's not just cuz it's NJ -- when I lived in California, it would have been 99th -- that's how useless that egotistical craphole is. but i digress).

Here's what I have in mind. Beginning in June the year before the election, there is a series of 10 monthly issue-oriented primaries: education, defense, environment, etc. The candidates explain their positions (and think tanks, industry trade groups, and others get to add their 2 cents; the press gives out some good in-depth coverage -- oh wait, this is the us? ok, the press gets to produce some dynamite graphics -- "apple + book = edumacation!") and the voters vote (online or kiosks so costs are low). Candidates don't have to travel, we get some useful details of what they're thinking and vice versa.

Then everyone takes a month off and we have a compressed set of (maybe 5) regional primaries.

Posted by: miriamsong | Dec 22, 2004 12:18:02 PM

Matt's plan would destroy the Democratic party. No one would join any group knowing that they might be forced to go to Dayton as a condition of membership.

Posted by: Ted | Dec 22, 2004 12:28:28 PM

Comic suggestion: go to a "skins game" format, awarding a number, unknown in advance and possibly random, of superdelegates to the winner of each primary. That way, they have to fight ND and WY tooth and nail, because the stakes are unknown in advance.

Seriously: the main priority has to be increasing primary participation. "Wisdom of crowds" and all that. If the primary season has to be a little more drawn out, and the eventual candidate gets roughed up a little more, that's (1) a small price to pay for more people identifying as Dems and (2) maybe not even bad in itself.

Posted by: son volt | Dec 22, 2004 12:42:06 PM

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