The Great Primary Race

Primary Reform

Our primary elections are a relatively new innovation to bring more democracy to our presidential elections. Before them, the state party bosses chose who their state’s delegates would support. In 1912, incumbent William Howard Taft faced challenges from Theodore Roosevelt (previous president) and Robert La Follette (beloved Senator and former governor from Wisconsin, would later run again as a Progressive in 1924) in the Republican nomination race. Roosevelt was more popular among the party base, but because Taft controlled the convention (he was the Chief of the Republican Party as the President, after all), he ensured that the party nominated him, not Roosevelt or La Follette.

The call for reform amplified after 1968 when the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey secured the nomination despite not having won any primary. The Democratic and Republican Parties both required that to prevent candidates without popular support from winning the nomination just because of established connections (Humphrey was the Vice President in 1968), the delegates who voted for the nominees (on behalf of the people) would have vote for whoever the people they represented liked the best. In other words, the primary elections would not be just for fun anymore, they would actually choose the nominee. It was the people, not the party elites, who were supposed to choose.

Primary dates were important decision for state party leaders. When a state’s primary was on the calendar could alter how important a state was in the election. The later the primary, the less likely that state could influence the trajectory of a rising or falling candidate. And it also meant that few candidates were interested in that state, because they had to win the early states first. So many states moved their primary dates from the summer season to the late-winter, early spring season. They wanted to maintain their importance or perhaps become more influential. What reason do people love talking about the Iowa caucus other than because it’s the first election of the season?

But the current primary system has candidates crisscrossing all across America, campaigning over a calendar dotted randomly with primary dates for different states. A map depicting the dates of the primaries for each state party is depicted below, the Democratic Party’s primaries are on the left, and the Republican Party’s primaries are the right:

And the shortening of the primary season because all the states are clamoring to be earlier and earlier (even despite penalties from the Parties) is causing each individual state to be less and less important. With so many states have primaries so near to each other, candidates must act strategically and only visit the more prioritized locations. There has to be a better way to run our primaries.

One National Primary

What if we had all the primaries on one day? It would eliminate the confusion caused by a random calendar of dates, and it would eliminate any biases of first states.

But it would also mean campaigning would become incredibly difficult. Especially for lesser known candidates, candidates with less money, or new candidates. At least the state-by-state system allowed these candidates to get their foot in the door through grass-roots organizing. Additionally, it would force candidates to really prioritize their time, meaning that smaller states could go ignored throughout the entire process as the candidates focus on the larger states with more delegates.

Overall, a national primary might end up being worse than the state-by-state.

Rotating Regional Primary

Perhaps as a compromise between state-by-state and one national primary, we could split the nation into a few regions. Each region has its primary a month or so after the other. Each election year, the sequence of regions would rotate; so the region that went first in 2008 would last in 2012, third in 2016, second in 2020, and first again in 2024. The National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of Lieutenant Governors suggested this method, though part of their plan was to keep Iowa and New Hampshire as the first two states to have elections, then the regions would come after.

rotating regional plan
[Image Source]
It would help clear up the clunky election calendar we have now. Also it would alleviate some of the state-hopping that candidates have to go through (Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina to Nevada, etc.). After New Hampshire, candidates can efficiently travel around the same region of the country campaigning along the way. This could help smaller candidates who may not be able to afford as much travel as other candidates. And campaign ads could be shown more efficiently. Now ads bought in small states like Connecticut, which often are broadcast into neighboring states, could still be useful in those states too.

This system shares some disadvantages with the national primary, even if at a smaller scale. The candidates, because they have a whole region of the country to campaign in all at the same time, there may be less face-to-face time in a single area. Or if there is, it’s much more likely to be in bigger, more populated states. Additionally, the advantage is still with the wealthier candidates who have more name recognition. Grass-roots organization is still more difficult than in a state-by-state system.

Additionally, which state goes first could give a huge strategic advantage to certain candidates. Right now, Bernie Sanders has a huge advantage in New Hampshire because his home state of Vermont is geographically close and similar. In a rotating regional system, Sanders could see the same benefit magnified if the Northeastern Region went first in the primary season. Similarly, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio could have advantages if the Southeastern Region went first, Ted Cruz if the Southern Region went first, etc.

There could be a liberal advantage, however, because the regions are not ideologically balanced. While the Midwest region is fairly moderate, the West and Northeast could be assumed to vote liberal pretty consistently, while the entire conservative base would be in the South region. Some have suggested that instead of grouping the states solely based on geography, the voting records of those states should be considered so that the regions are somewhat more balanced.

balanced rotating regional primary
One proposal for a more balanced organization of the regions [Image Source]
Finally, the last primary could become irrelevant if a candidate pulls ahead beyond any of their competitors before the last primary even takes place. This problem could be solved by combining the last two primaries into one larger one. But that would sacrifice some smaller states’ chances of being visited or courted by candidates.

The Delaware Plan

In order to ensure all states are visited and everyone has a chance to meet the candidates, the Delaware Plan organizes the states based on population, putting the less populated states earlier on the primary calendar, and the larger states later. This would mean the candidates running for office would have to add the smaller states to their travel plans in order to stay viable.

delaware plan primary
[Image Source]
This could allow lesser known candidates a chance to begin a grass-roots campaign in smaller states, get more name recognition, and have better organization for later in the campaign in the bigger states. But because the states are not grouped geographically, the less-funded candidates could have problems getting to all those states. And because the larger states go last, the majority of the delegates for choosing a candidate would not be selected until way later in the primary season.

The smaller, less populated states tend to be more rural and more white, and less representative of the United States as whole, which could be a continuing problem if we decided to switch to this plan. While Republicans supported this plan in 2000, the Democratic Party rejected it, claiming that the majority of the states in the first few rounds were conservative states, putting the Democrats at a disadvantage.

The Graduated Random Presidential Primary (aka the American Plan)

NPR described the American Plan like this:

So here goes: There would be 10 caucus periods, each lasting two weeks. States with fewer congressional districts would go first, followed by states with a few more in the next period and so on.

This would be according to a particular formula: States with a total of eight districts would go first, with the states being randomly selected. So, for example, Kansas and Mississippi, which each have four districts, might be in the first round. The next round, the number of districts would total 16. The next, 24.

But after that, the numbers get less straightforward. To keep the biggest states like New York and California from always going nearly last, the plan allows for some bigger district totals to go earlier. The order for all 10 caucus rounds would be eight, 16, 24, 56, 32, 64, 40, 72, 48 and then 80 districts.

This plan wouldn’t save much money on travel or ad costs, but it would allow smaller states to be more relevant without forcing the larger states to go last. It does make the primary season longer, which to some means more time to organize and spread information, and to others means only the well-funded candidates could survive that long.

Interregional Primary Plan

This plan would divide the nation into six geographically-based regions (the Northeast, the Midwest, the Southwest, etc.). And then the states would be further sub-divided into 6 groups within each region. There would be 6 regions (labeled 1-6) with 6 groups (labeled A-F) in each for a total of 36 groups total. All ‘A’ Groups would hold a primary on one day, then all ‘B’ Groups would hold the next primary date, then all ‘C’ groups, etc. And then in four 4 years for the next Presidential election, the group order would cycle.

Because each group is divided randomly, some states could still be overshadowed. For example, it could come to the ‘C’ primary, but the states include California and Texas with Rhode Island, Maryland, Iowa, and Georgia, which could mean those latter 4 states could receive way less attention than if they weren’t randomly assigned to the ‘D’ group.

And because of the design of the plan, the travel costs for candidates would not be minimized. But the primary season would be lengthened, and no one region/state would have an advantage by being first.


Is there a better way to run the primaries? Each plan has its ups and downs, and makes its own sacrifices of some aspects in order to prioritize others. Some value geographical contiguity, some value the voices of smaller states, some value balanced ideological groupings. It depends on what people like. Ultimately, though, the Parties are in control of their own primaries. So to tackle primary reform, it might require reforming the power structure of the Parties.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)


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