Hey Democrats, what if we made the primaries good?

The Democratic primaries have been, in PoliSci terms, an ungodly shitstorm. First Iowa made a strong argument that democracy itself is a failed experiment. Then New Hampshire couldn’t decide between Pete Buttigieg or his emotionally abusive mother Amy and ended up just going with their lovable socialist grandpa. By the time people of color were allowed to vote in any real numbers, every nonwhite Democrat had dropped out (I’m not going to sit here and acknowledge T*lsi G*bbard).

So it got me thinking, what if the primaries were… good? Like, what if instead of a long, national waking nightmare, we had a system that allowed the best candidates to rise to the top without forcing the eventual nominee to kowtow to a few unrepresentative states?

As I see it, there are a few key problems to address:

  • A couple states currently play an outsized role in picking the nominee. Every cycle, candidates spend years flocking to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. The rest of us are lucky to get a few weeks of Super PAC ads and some cursory promises to never forget the great people of [state/commonwealth/territory]. It’s why corn subsidies are politically untouchable and why Elizabeth Warren is sending Tom Brady to the Las Vegas Raiders.
  • Those states look nothing like America. It’s breaking no ground to point out that New Hampshire and Iowa are overwhelmingly white and nonurban. But it’s still breathtaking to think about: in a nation that’s expected to be majority people of color by 2050, the most politically important states are 92% and 88% white respectively. Nevada and South Carolina certainly provide some much-needed diversity, but Iowa and New Hampshire set the tone; this year, the vast majority of candidates dropped out before Nevada and South Carolina even voted.
  • A national primary would heavily favor the biggest spenders. It’s tempting to ask why we can’t just have a single-day, 50-state primary to give us all an equal voice. But the reality is that unless we’re willing to commit to 100% publicly financed campaigns, a national primary would be more of a test of fundraising prowess and name recognition than anything. Picture Mike Bloomberg dropping a billion dollars on ads in the month before voting and walking away with a plurality of delegates. And as painful as it is, it’s useful to ask candidates to navigate a lengthy, multi-faceted primary because it gives the press and the public time to determine frontrunners based on actual votes and vet the candidates accordingly.
  • If we remove the elements of the process that winnow the field, we risk contested conventions. This is a big part of why the primary calendar is so disjointed and elongated. The expectation is that candidates will slowly drop out, giving us either a one-on-one fight (Obama–Clinton 2008, Clinton–Sanders 2016, Sanders–Biden 2020) or a coronation. If we democratize democracy too much, we’ll end up with chaos on the convention floor every four years.

The solution, I believe, is a multi-state wave approach, in which each wave is intentionally similar to the nation as a whole in terms of race, age, and cost of living—and with a focus on regional parity. And I hope it goes without saying that this also means ending undemocratic caucuses in favor of true primaries.

The idea is that by grouping the states into waves we not only give more states a place of importance in the process, but also we can more easily give a voice to underrepresented groups. Each of the five waves would account for 15–20% of the total delegates—with the exception of Super Tuesday—to ensure candidates have no incentive to skip a wave they see as less favorable to them. Each wave would also have geographic diversity to prevent a candidate from sweeping to victory just because a region favorable to them voted first. But wherever possible, there are a few states in the same region in each wave, so that candidates low on funds or name recognition can more easily canvass multiple states at once.

The final consideration was how to avoid a contested convention. This is where things get a little less equal. The earlier voting states would have lower viability thresholds to earn delegates; these thresholds would gradually increase until the final wave is winner-take-all by state. The GOP already uses winner-take-all primaries to avoid brokered conventions, and there’s no reason Democrats can’t adopt this practice in the last wave as a final safeguard.

So, what would this look like in practice? A modest proposal is below.
Look at that, early voting states: you get to keep your place! The reality is that Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina are not inherently bad places to start. They’re relatively affordable to advertise in, they’re geographically disparate, and three of the four are swing-ish at minimum. They’re just incomplete. For this wave, I targeted a mix of low-cost states and states with large population centers to make sure that urban and suburban voices are heard. Illinois and Michigan, with their diverse metro areas and expansive rural geographies, offer a good cross-section. Mississippi and South Carolina give the Black Belt a voice. And Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada have above-average Hispanic and Native American populations. This wave is a bit whiter than the nation on the whole, but it’s dramatically better than Iowa and New Hampshire on their own—and crucially, six of the nine states are frequent or upcoming swing states.
Wave 2 would see far fewer states but slightly more delegates. The presence of these larger states so early both encourages nonviable candidates to drop out and gives higher population density locales (read: “places where people live”) more power. And in Wave 2, five out of six states are likely to be swing-ish in coming years. Where Wave 1 was whiter than the nation on average, Wave 2 has a higher percentage of Hispanic Americans, although it’s worth noting that the Texas Hispanic community (many of whom have roots pre-dating Texas’s entry into the United States) is quite different from the largely Cuban community in Florida. Hopefully, bringing these diverse states to the forefront of the process would force candidates to consider individual communities in their platforms, rather than broadly defined demographic groups. 
Super Tuesday is essentially a necessity due to California’s size and would likely be many candidates’ last stand. With a 20% viability threshold and large expensive states in play, any candidate who hasn’t caught fire after the first 14 states would be highly incentivized to drop out. California is obviously the big prize, but the Rust Belt, Northeast, Midwest, Deep South, Mid-Atlantic and Pacific Northwest are all represented. The West Coast states also provide an opportunity for Asian American voters to be counted. Making it through Super Tuesday would be expensive, but with nearly a full month between Wave 2 and Wave 3, candidates would have time to assess whether they got the fundraising boost needed from the first two waves to continue on.
Wave 4 comes just two weeks after Super Tuesday and features another massive delegate prize that comes with a hefty price tag: New York. The Northeast on the whole is more represented in Wave 4 than elsewhere, but candidates who focus only on the East Coast would miss out: the Great Plains, Mountain West, Southwest and West Coast are all included too. And Wave 4 features three of the five states with the highest percentages of Native peoples; hopefully, by consolidating these states in one wave, these communities can finally get the attention they deserve. With a 20% viability threshold, any campaigns hanging on past their due could come up empty and be forced out.
Many years, the contest will be over by this point and the presumptive nominee can clinch a delegate majority in this wave. That’s why many states that are traditionally less important in the general election—and are full of Republicans—make up the final wave. But in years when the nomination is coming down to the wire, larger states like New Jersey, Tennessee and Missouri could play kingmaker. And the biggest consideration for Wave 5 is the move to a winner-take-all format. Imagine a frontrunner who struggled through a crowded primary and gets to Wave 5 with 40–45% of delegates; a winner-take-all final stage provides the opportunity to secure an outright majority and avoid a contested convention.

All in all, this process would still not be perfect. The heartland could claim it’s sequestered to Wave 5, while crucial states like New York and California don’t vote until midway through the process. The accelerated timeline—designed to spare voters from months of redundant debates—could make things tough for insurgent candidates. Not to mention, this does nothing to address voter suppression and the disruptive force of outside spending.

But giving voters from so many of the disparate communities that make up America a more equitable role in the electoral process will surely create a more democratic process. And with any luck, it’ll help Democrats answer the whole “electability” question a little easier and a little faster, by letting truly representative elections decide.

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