Making Method Out of the US Primary Madness


The image above from the 2008 Iowa Caucuses is by Citizensharp. It is used in accordance with their Creative Commons license.

Election season has started up in the United States once again (or, more accurately, kicked into higher gear) with the results of the Iowa caucuses setting the narrative for Cruz, Sanders and Clinton. Trump’s loss will probably send him packing, and while Sanders’ tie with Clinton is remarkable, it remains to be seen if he has the momentum to get past her SuperPACs. I suspect we’ll see a Clinton/Cruz election, which Clinton will win, but not nearly as handily as someone should against a candidate like Cruz.

And with the Iowa Caucuses in the bag, we hear once again people wondering aloud, “Why does Iowa go first? Why do they get to set the narrative? Who made these stupid rules?”

The U.S. primary system seems positively whacko from this outsider’s (Canadian) perspective. The amount of taxpayer support accorded to these primary elections really entrenches both the Democrats and the Republicans as the only legitimate political parties in what is supposed to be the world’s greatest democracy. If third parties are effectively banned by procedural bias, how democratic is that? But I do see some sense in starting the primary season in a small state. That state doesn’t have to be Iowa, but it does have to be small.

The thing with Iowa is that it is a pretty small state, both geographically, and by population (it ranks 30th). And this means that political candidates have a reasonable chance of reaching out to most everybody in the state, either by television, Internet, or good ol’ door-to-door campaigning, and engage the voter. Tackling that task is easy, and doesn’t blow very many budgets. Believe it or not, this is one of the few safety valves the United States has to limit the influence of rich candidates in elections.

Imagine, for a second, that the first primary in the U.S. presidential election season was California, or Texas. You’d have tens of millions of voters to try and reach, and a lot of territory to cover. Ad buys quickly become budget-breakers. While states like New York or Michigan might reasonably be jealous over smaller states like Iowa or New Hampshire going first, if we don’t hold the bigger states to nearer the end, we effectively lock out candidates who have less than $200 million net worth.

Smaller states should go first in the primary campaign process, because smaller candidates have a better chance of getting noticed and succeeding on their own merits. Victories here can give them the national attention they need to give them the resources to tackle larger states. It opens up the field of candidates, and that’s a good thing in any democracy.

But it doesn’t have to be Iowa. It shouldn’t be any single state, since why should they get a chance to craft the national conversation of the election every single time?

But there may be a way to deal with this.

Consider: the U.S. primary season is effectively five months long. Iowa is the first state to go in February, and South Dakota is the last, in June (Geez! What did these guys do to get the short straw?). There are fifty states in the Union. There are also associated territories, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, not to mention Democrats and Republicans abroad, but perhaps we can toss them in at the end. Call it a perk of statehood.

Fifty states divides into five months producing ten states a month. Order the states from lowest population to highest. Now, in February, take the ten smallest states by population (Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire), and select one at random. It holds its primary on the first Tuesday of February. Then select two more at random. They hold their primaries on the second Tuesday of February. Select three more at random, and they hold their primaries on the third Tuesday of February. The last four states hold their primaries on a mini “Super Tuesday” on the fourth Tuesday of February.

Then we move into March with the next ten largest states by population (Hawaii, Idaho, West Virginia, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Utah) and repeat the process. April takes the next ten (including Iowa), May the following ten, and June the ten largest states of the Union.

This, to my mind, would randomize the primaries to ensure that no one state gets to set the narrative election after election, while favouring small states at the beginning so as to allow smaller candidates a chance to rise or fall on their own merits. Big states may not like being locked out of the early days, but they would have a stronger chance of deciding the race, since the bulk of the delegates wouldn’t be chosen until the later months.

It seems fair and sensible to me but, what do I know? I’m just an outsider and one individual who can’t possibly challenge the entrenched interests that maintain the current whacky system held together with duct tape and spit. But I can, at least, put the idea out there.

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