The success of Donald Trump’s imbecilic and loathsome campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination should teach us one lesson: it is time to scrap the whole notion of closed primary elections.
Donald’s sideshow is showing us why primary elections are a terrible idea that is very bad for America. Unfortunately, neither the media nor the political elite is learning that lesson. To make matters worse, neither are the American people.
So far this year, Donald has completely embarrassed himself and offended almost everybody else by insulting other candidates, injecting racism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry into the race and lowering the whole level of discourse. Donald’s amateurish carnival of stupidity and bigotry is only made possible by the absurd presidential primary system.
The system is based on closed primaries where members of parties chose the candidate that represents them in the national election. On paper, this is supposed to make the process more democratic, but in reality, it ensures minority rule.
How the Primaries Created Trump
Back in the old days, before the modern primary system, which has only existed since the 1920s, the Donald’s clown show would not have been possible. Before primaries, there were only two ways Donald could have gotten on the Presidential ballot. He could have:
- Organized his own political party and tried to get on the ballot in every state. That would require a massive, well-organized, and well-financed political machine. Such an effort would cost several billion dollars, probably more than Donald’s entire fortune (which is around $4.5 billion, according to Forbes). Since I don’t think Donald has any desire to move to a walkup apartment in Newark and eat Ramen noodles for political success, that’s probably out of the question.
- Try to win the nomination by getting a majority at the convention of one of the two major political parties. That would require a well-financed and well-organized movement of professional political operatives just to get in the door. My guess is that Donald lacks that kind of support, and even if he had it, there would be a dozen ways for the party establishment to block him and throw him out the door. Back when Presidential candidates were nominated by parties, such troublemakers often showed up – for example, ultra-wealthy mining heir, notorious racist, and newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst – and effectively got sidelined.
Today, all a noxious rich celebrity like Donald has to do to become a serious Presidential contender is get on the primary ballot in a few states, something that costs next to nothing. If he can win a few primaries in strategic states like Iowa or New Hampshire, Trump can become the frontrunner. There is little the party can do to keep Trump away, and to make matters worse, the modern media gives him a national soapbox from which to spread his venom.
Donald only needs to win a small percentage of the national vote to win a GOP primary because only 23% of Americans identify themselves as Republicans. The situation is almost as bad on the other side of the aisle: around 33% of Americans identify themselves as Democrats. This basically means that small minorities in both parties decides who gets on the national ballot.
In some states, less than 5% of voters decide the outcome of closed primaries, Open Primaries reported. That makes candidates like Trump possible and perhaps probable.
How Scrapping Primaries could prevent another Trump
Somebody like Trump becoming the frontrunner for a major national party would be impossible in most democratic countries, because in those nations, the parties themselves choose the candidates. The voters then get to pick the party or candidate they want to govern.
In Britain, the buffoonish Nigel Farage, a character a lot like Trump, had to run on the absurd UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) ticket and did not even get into parliament in the last election. Under the British system, the major parties, Conservative and Labor, can simply lock the door when they see a clown like Farage coming. Under the American system, Farage (whose UKIP received 3.8 million votes in the last British general election) could use the primary to get a major party nomination.
If there were no primary system or a radically reformed primary system, Donald would have to go out and solicit millions of signatures on petitions to get on the ballot in every state. Since I doubt he has the money to do that, it would probably cost well in excess of his $4.5 billion fortune, and it simply would not happen.
Without closed primaries, the party could simply ignore Donald and he would probably go away sooner or later. He could show up at the convention, make a loud noise, and perhaps be allowed to make a speech during nonpeak TV time, but he would have no influence.
How to Reform Primaries
This means that the best way to stop future Trumps is to get rid of or radically reform primaries, but is that possible? The answer interestingly enough is yes; in the last 10 years, two states have successfully radically reformed the primary process.
California and Washington State adopted what is called a blanket, open, or Top Two nonpartisan primary in 2012 for most electoral offices. Under that system, all the candidates from all parties run against each other on the same ballot. Then the two candidates with the most votes run against each other. In that system, it means that two Democrats or two Republicans can end up running against each other for the same office.
For example, in such a system, Donald Trump would be running against Ted Cruz, but also against Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the same ballot. The results could be quite interesting.
Part of the reason why Donald can get away with his racist campaign is that he knows that almost all the voters in Republican primaries are white. If he knew that non-white people, who are mostly Democrats, would also be casting ballots, I imagine Donald would be singing a very different song. Such a system could have interesting results; for example, Hillary and Bernie might have to start paying attention to Second Amendment supporters or Pro-Lifers and Ted Cruz might have to listen to unions or environmentalists.
Sadly enough, the Presidential race is not included in California’s Open Primary. It would be interesting if it were because California is the nation’s most populous state. Washington State implemented a similar system through public vote in 2005 that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.
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Therefore, one solution would be to set up a nationwide blanket primary, perhaps hold it on the first Tuesday in October of election year. The two candidates that get the most votes could face each other one month later in the general election on the first Tuesday of November. U.S. Rep John K. Delaney (D-Maryland) has introduced a national open primary law he calls the Open Our Democracy Act in Congress, but it is currently stuck in committee. Interestingly, Delaney’s proposal does not include Presidential elections.
I don’t know if that would be possible because of the federal system. My guess is that reform will have to come on a state by state basis. Such a movement would need national momentum, which could be generated by a Trump nomination. If Trump gets the GOP nomination, I predict many major Republicans and a lot of conservatives will suddenly jump on the open primary bandwagon.
One thing is certain: Donald Trump’s “success” shows that our electoral system is badly broken. Hopefully, it will not take a slow moving catastrophe, such as a Trump nomination, to get our political leaders thinking about primary reform.