A Proposal to Make a Most Important Day and the Rest of the Election Cycle Work
Before starting this conversation, let’s be clear about something. The national parties do NOT organize primaries (date, open or closed, primary or caucus). States do their own thing, yielding various kinds of chaos and skewed outcomes. The national parties can cajole. They can threaten sanctions at the convention. But they have remarkably little control. More on that later.
A Killer Calendar
Super Tuesday in the 2020 election cycle comes on March 3 this time around. It is always part of a front end loaded process. It follows the early states (Iowa and Vermont) in February (and SC is called critical by some). Super Tuesday always thins the herd of candidates appreciably.
There is even more interest in Super Tuesday, the day of the most contests, for 2020 because of California. California has moved its election date before, but this time they moved it all the way up to March 3rd. They decided being an afterthought in the Summer was not fitting. Now the 800-pound gorilla is in the room.
Eliminating candidates who cannot organize or raise enough money is OK. In a sense, that is the purpose of primaries and caucuses. But loading the calendar so heavily with key states so early is problematic. It risks eliminating talent that given another 30-60 days might have become contenders.
How heavy is the front-end loading? In the first two weeks of February, the traditional lead off states of Iowa and New Hampshire do their thing. A bit later in the month, South Carolina and Nevada roll in.
On March 3, nine states all have their elections. This includes heavyweights California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. And that is so far – many states have not yet set a date, including Georgia and New York. A week later, add Michigan and Ohio.
In about the first 90 days of the calendar year, it is all likely to be over. At least for 90%+ of the candidates.
With this approach a candidate that survives will need to have a lot of money and staff. They will need to cover several major states in depth, coast to coast, all at once. That seems a bit premature to me.
There is also the problem of two small, rural states having disproportionate influence. Iowa and New Hampshire have a lot of influence because they are first. There is actually much to like about this. Both states place a premium on getting to know the candidates. Small meetings and practice caucuses are often good at sniffing out BS. Although not always.
Still, the weight they carry seems unhealthy. On a side note, the mix of caucuses vs primaries nationally seems pretty good. Both offer advantages and problems. This part of the equation I am tempted to leave to fate.
As for the rest, we can do better. Doing better means the following:
What Do We Want?
(1) Everyone gets their day in the sun. Over time, states get their shot at being important early in the cycle.
(2) The system stresses candidates and campaigns. It still weeds out the weak. But it doe so over a slightly longer timeline and with smarter geographic distribution.
(3) Proportionality is the guideline. No more “winner take all” outcomes. These create early distortions of candidate strength.
(4) State parties work as a group with national parties to put in place a system like the one described below. Those that will not do so must pay real consequences at the convention.
Seven Steps to Get It Right
A better system starts with a multi-year planning calendar. It changes the Super Tuesday states every presidential election cycle. The number of Super Tuesday states is kept manageable (6?). This includes a good mix of small and large states, distributed across the country.
A second component may take a regionally balanced approach with the rest of the calendar. Alternatively, it may organize by region, with most states in a region having their elections at about the same time.
The first variant of this component allows candidates to show national strength early. The other option allows them to show regional strengths. I like the first variant better. But I would be fine alternating versions in presidential elections over 12-20 years. After that, we could take stock of how each variant served the nation.
A third component offers a more efficient and effective candidate debate calendar. Enough to inform us but not in the double digits, please. It will be necessary to have two-tiered or alternate debate dates if the candidate roster is large. UPDATE: Well, too late now. The Democrats have announced they plan to hold 12 (!) debates. Oh, joy!
Having 15-20 candidates on the stage at once is little more than a crowd scene. Such mass events have no prospect of useful debates. Remember the Republican 2016 debates? And yes, let’s keep a mix of town hall meetings in there, too. They tell us much about the candidates – and about us.
Fourth, raise money for a matching fund pool. Once candidates reach a certain level of viability (yeah, that is a tough one to define, I admit), they are eligible for matching funds for small donations (under $250?). This leverages a small donor base and frees candidates up at least a little from big donor pressure.
Fifth, no candidate makes it on the ballot until they have done two things. (1) They must provide the last 10 years of tax returns. (2) They must release a complete physical from an independent medical team set up in advance.
Sixth, election day is a holiday. No one should have to worry about missing work to exercise their rights as citizens.
Seventh, mandate and resource the requirements that no one have to travel excessively to reach a polling place, that such places are open nights, weekends, and at least four weeks for early voting. Sites are required to be adequate to ensure that no one should expect to be in line more than one hour.
Walking a Better Electoral Path
A system along these lines would yield valuable goals for our country.
- It would provide a more layered and extended weeding out in years with a crowded field of candidates. The major thinning process would likely go well into April, perhaps May. This gives us a better shot at picking the best candidates.
- It is fairer to the states, with a rotating roster of key dates players.
- The emphasis and rewards are on small donations.
- There is some order and standards in the debate process and in our knowledge of candidate fitness.
Not much of this is likely to happen by 2020, but this looks like the path we should be walking going forward. Tell your local party reps you want a better path going forward.
If you find this blog worthy of your time and curiosity, I invite you to do two things:
(1) Join the conversation. Your voice counts here.
(2) Share the word about this post with friends and colleagues. Share a link in your emails and social media posts. Let’s grow our circle.