David Leonhardt: The presidential nomination process is absurd

(Chris Carlson | AP) Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, center, speaks beside entrepreneur Andrew Yang, left, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles.

Andrew Yang began his closing statement at the last Democratic debate with a charming bit of self-deprecation: “I know what you’re thinking, America. How am I still on this stage with them?”

Yang has never been elected to any office. He is a businessman who has never run a major company. Even so, he is one of the Democratic Party’s seven leading candidates for an election that everybody agrees is desperately important. The other six on the debate stage included another businessman who has never held office and a mayor who has never won an election with more than 10,991 votes.

As funny as Yang’s line may have been, he was highlighting a real problem: Our process for selecting presidential nominees is badly flawed.

It is, as Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja recently wrote in The Atlantic, “a spectacle that would have struck earlier generations as ludicrous.” It has come to resemble a reality television show, in which a pseudo-scientific process (polls plus donor numbers) winnows the field. The winner is then chosen by a distorted series of primaries and caucuses: The same few states always get outsize influence, and a crude, unranked voting system can produce a nominee whom most people don’t want.

No wonder the current president is a reality-television star, not to mention the most unfit occupant of the office in our country’s history. “The victory of Donald Trump in 2016 is best understood as a failure of the process,” political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has written, “and a failure of the Republican Party to prevent an outsider from taking its presidential nomination — the most important thing that U.S. political parties have.”

The current system may seem as if it’s simply an expression of democracy, but it’s not. It’s one version of democracy. And it’s one that virtually no other country uses. In other democracies, political parties have more sway in selecting the nominee, and voters then choose among the major nominees. Until recently, the United States also gave party leaders a larger role in selecting nominees.

Today’s leaders have abdicated this job, afraid to do anything that might appear elitist because it substitutes the judgment of experts for that of ordinary citizens. The irony is that the new process may actually do a poorer job of picking nominees whom ordinary citizens like, as research by Dennis Spies and André Kaiser, looking across countries, suggests.

How could this be? When voters are given the dominant role in choosing a nominee — as with primaries here — only an unrepresentative subset tends to participate, which skews the process. Party leaders, on the other hand, have a big incentive to choose a broadly liked candidate. Just think about American history: Nominees chosen by party leaders have included Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Dwight Eisenhower.

I’m not suggesting we return to the smoke-filled rooms of the past. But the current process puts a higher priority on the appearance of democracy than the reality of it. We’re left with candidates fighting to do well enough in early polls to get into the debates and then to win 30% of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, which can launch them toward the nomination.

A better approach would balance snapshots of popular opinion with rules more likely to produce strong, qualified nominees.

The first change should be to the debates. The candidates’ electoral history and qualifications currently count for nothing. The 2020 Democratic field, for example, has included four two-term governors, all of whom have been excluded from debates despite a track record of winning votes and governing successfully. In their place have been candidates, like Yang, who managed to crack 4% in a few polls.

It makes more sense for only the true polling leaders to be guaranteed debate slots. Beyond them, the party could set aside at least one spot for a governor and perhaps one for a senator from a large state or swing state.

A second set of changes would involve the primaries themselves. More states should adopt ranked-choice voting, allowing voters to list their second and third choices. Memphis, Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco and the state of Maine, among other places, have adopted this system for some elections.

Ranked choice can prevent the Trump phenomenon during the 2016 Republican primaries. Trump may have solid Republican support today, but he didn’t back then. Even though most Republican voters opposed him, his dedicated base let him emerge from a large field.

It’s also past time to end the special treatment that Iowa and New Hampshire receive, by always voting first. They are two overwhelmingly white, disproportionately baby boomer states (and the fact that Iowa voted for Barack Obama in 2008 doesn’t give it a permanent pass). The primary calendar should instead rotate every four years, with the first states always including a mix of states: big and small, young and old, urban and rural, coastal and heartland.

The seven candidates who made the last Democratic debate stage all have their strengths, but as a group, they offer an indictment of the nomination process. There are three candidates in their 70s — and no African American or Latino. There are two people who have never won an election — and zero who have ever run a state.

Of course, the biggest sign that the process is broken isn’t any of those seven. It is the man in the Oval Office.

David Leonhardt

David Leonhardt is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.