By John F. Di Leo -
The Republican Party suffers from a terrible illness, and it goes on and on, season after season, without even attempts to cure it.
This illness is our presidential primary system. Since the beginning of the New Deal, the Republican Party has only nominated two conservatives for the Presidency: Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. One suffered a huge defeat, the other enjoyed two huge victories. As this record shows the conservative ascendancy, one would expect this to mean that the party would keep nominating candidates like their greatest victor in a century, at least until it stopped working.
But that hasn’t happened. After Ronald Reagan, the party’s nominees returned to the pre-Reagan norm of mushy, unsure, liberal Republicans. And so we have squandered so many of the gains we made during the Reagan era.
Many blame “the party” – as if the Republican party were some monolithic organization run by an evil cabal. But if we study the party platform over the years, we find that it has remained essentially conservative throughout. No matter who the Republican nominee has been, the platform has – for the most part – been one that any conservative could be generally satisfied with.
The cause of our problem – the reason we’ve nominated George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney – men who, if they ever actually read their party’s platform, would likely say “Gee, that’s awfully rigid, isn’t it?” – is our presidential primary system. And it’s actually quite easy to fix.
Surely the Republican Party is the only organization that allows non-members to choose its leaders and spokesmen. Whether a state has a primary or a caucus system, there has to be some rule that determines who gets in the door to participate. In too many of our states, they let in anybody of voting age (in some states, they’re considering relaxing even that!).
As a result, the Republican primary electorate in some states is solidly Republican, while the Republican primary electorate in other states is watered down with independents and even Democrats.
No, that’s not an exaggeration. In some states, if there’s nothing “interesting” going on in a Democrat primary, and the Republican primary is still wide open, Democrats flock to participate in the Republican primary to choose their favorite from the Republican field, or even to consciously pick the one they believe to be the most beatable. And the Republican party lets them do it!
Look at 2012 for example. Barack Obama, amazingly, was unchallenged in the Democratic primary, so independents and Democrats who were only interested in the presidential contest had nothing to do, unless they came over and meddled in the Republican primary. In the New Hampshire Republican primary and the Iowa Republican caucus, at least a third of the participants (depending on how you count it) were non-Republicans, because these “open primary states” allow a voter to declare his party on election day, when he arrives at the polling place.
A person could walk precincts for Barack Obama the night before, and still take a ballot to participate in the Republican nomination choice on election day. It’s an outrage.
The Republican party constantly bemoans how it is misunderstood by the public. But how can the public be blamed, if the party presents a conservative national platform and a liberal national nominee, year after year? It is this suicidal grant of nominating privileges to outsiders that has caused the problem, and it gets worse and worse every season.
Two definitions are in order:
A closed primary is one in which voters or caucus-goers must have declared their party affiliation at some point before the primary process begins, at least six months out, preferably more. For example, in the Illinois of my youth, if you voted in a Democratic primary, you had to skip the next primary in order to be allowed to vote in a Republican primary. A participant in the 1956 Democrat primary, therefore, would have to skip the 1958 primary if he wanted to be allowed to participate in the 1960 Republican primary. In those days, you didn’t vote in a primary to meddle; you only voted if you meant it, if you really identified with the party, because there were consequences.
An open primary, on the other hand, is one in which you can just show up on primary day and say “Hi, I’d like a Republican ballot, please.” The left will tell you that this does constitute party identification, but that’s hogwash. A system that allows meddling by non-members is an open primary, and it’s utterly destructive.
We all know Republican who meddled in the Democrat primary in 2008 – voting for Clinton or Obama, whichever one they thought would be more defeatable in the fall. How did that turn out? Non-Democrats have no business meddling in the Democrats’ primary, and non-Republicans have no business meddling in the Republicans’. You have no right to choose a team’s champion if you’re not a member of the team!
One key reform, desperately necessary to producing a consensus Republican nominee in 2016 and beyond, is the elimination of open primaries, at least at the presidential level. We can restrict the convention voting privileges of delegates selected by open primaries; we can even ban them from convention attendance. Since primary elections are up to the states, the national party has to set rather severe threats in order to get the states to step up and do the right thing.
Iowa votes. Wait a week. New Hampshire votes. Wait ten days. South Carolina votes. Wait another ten days. Florida votes. Wait a few more days. Maine and Nevada vote. And on and on it goes.
The Republican primary calendar has two key problems:
The order. The very first two states – the first caucus and the first primary – are both open primary states, in which non-Republicans play a deciding role in the winnowing process, so that by the time it gets around to states where the Republicans actually get to choose their favorite without interference, their favorite is damaged by two or three losses, and the field has been skewed in a misleading direction. If we must tolerate some open primary states, we should at least move them to places in the calendar in which they do less damage!
The unfairness: The same states always have control over the winnowing process, and many states – many good states with good, honorable voters who deserve a role in the choice – are left until the end of the process, when the winner has already accumulated enough delegates and the battle is done. It is outrageous that the good Republicans of most states have no say whatever in their presidential nomination. The calendar needs to rotate so that everyone, over the course of a few elections, has a chance to vote at a time when it makes a great difference.
The power: Since the attention of the nation, even the world, is on the American presidential primary process for the first six months of an Olympic year, each individual election garners a measure of press that’s completely disproportionate to the state’s relevance to the contest. A state may have only a few delegates to award, or be no contest at all in the fall, but its primary owns the news cycles for days on either side. This too gives undeserved weight to a single state’s choice, so if that state chooses wrong – due to favorite son status, a media barrage, a news story the media liked that week – then that one state’s power is immeasurably, and dangerously, enlarged.
Proper reforms must therefore address these three issues. We need a more flexible schedule that distributes the rotation fairly, cycle after cycle, so that over the course of a voter’s life, he could at least say that his vote made a difference every few elections. Look at California, always one of the last states: there are millions of good Republicans in California, and their primary vote hasn’t mattered in a presidential nomination for over a generation.
One Good Solution
There are several possible ways to resolve these problems. Here are my proposals, in no particular order:
1) Punish the states that have open primaries. Either ban their convention delegates entirely or restrict their privileges so they cannot vote for the president, the vice president or the platform. Open primary states should be forced to be held after the closed primary states are all done. Iowa and New Hampshire will whine. Nothing against them – they’re fine states with fine people – but that’s tough. They need to get over themselves. Close your primary or move to the end.
2) Set a new rule that no state can have a day to itself. There should be at least five primaries and caucuses on the same day, to minimize the destruction done to other candidates by a win in a state that ought to be insignificant in the overall picture. Ten primary days of five states each (plus the territories scattered in) would accomplish this goal. There would still be winnowing of the field, but no single state would be dooming a candidate who would have done well from the fourth or fifth states, but the first three losses shut him out of the public mind by then.
3) Shake up the calendar, every time. This is actually the hardest one to agree, but it’s critical. The Republican party cannot be considered fair to its members if it continues to shut out half, or even three quarters, of them from the presidential selection process. We need to cycle the states from season to season, so that the first states in 2016 are the last states in 2020, middle states in 2024, and so forth. Population weighting would be one key component (one large state and four smaller states on each joint primary day)… a frequent recommendation is that the Republican vote of recent elections be taken into account – states that elect Republican governors and legislatures, like Texas and Wisconsin, should arguably have more of a say than states that elect Democrats statewide, like Illinois and California. I personally rather like a congressional district method, dividing up the 435 seats and having a dozen dates with 43 or 44 districts each, though splitting up a state is impractical for a primary (though manageable for a caucus!).
Solve it now!
We need drastic changes to our process. Allowing New Hampshire Democrats and Iowa independents a say in the Republican nomination must end.
There are various ways to get there, but the eventual solution must at least include the empowerment of closed primaries, the empowerment of the many states that the current system oppresses, and the elimination of the ability of a single state to dominate the news cycle for weeks.
Much more still needs to be done, of course. Our suicidal approach to presidential debates and our tolerance of ever-more-blatant vote fraud must also be corrected.
But, just as every new journey begins with a single step, so too does every new year begin by changing the calendar. And no calendar needs to be thrown away and replaced like the Republican presidential primary calendar.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade trainer. A former Milwaukee County Republican Party Chairman, he has now been a recovering politician for over sixteen years.
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