A Better Way for Democrats to Elect Their Presidential Candidate

The same four states shouldn’t go first every four years.

Elizabeth Warren
Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts gives a speech in Bloomfield Township, Iowa, January 19 (Phil Roeder)

Democrats in the United States need to rethink how they elect their presidential nominees.

The problem with the current system is not just that two of the first four contests are caucuses, in which few voters can and want to participate; the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, are so rural and white that they hardly represent the Democratic electorate nationwide.

Iowa’s Democrats needed days to tabulate their votes this year, undermining confidence in the process. Nevada’s did better, but they still needed a full day to incorporate the results of four days of early ranked-choice voting into the outcome of the in-person caucuses.

The result: talented politicians of color, notably Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, felt they had to end their presidential bids before the first votes were even cast. Center-left candidates with little chance of winning the nomination, such Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, did reasonably well in Iowa and New Hampshire and are now making it harder for more viable moderates to break out.

By the time eighteen states and territories will have voted next week, on Super Tuesday, and 1,499 of the 1,991 delegates needed to win the nomination will have been allocated, the socialist Bernie Sanders, the top choice of one in four Democrats nationally, could be close to unbeatable.

Surely there is a better way?

National primary

One suggestion is a national, instant-runoff primary. Like early voters in Nevada, Democrats across the country would rank-order the candidates according to their preference. If no candidate has more than 50 percent support, the least popular candidate is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are counted instead. The process is repeated until a candidate has majority support.

That could mean the second choice of a majority of voters ends up the winner, but that’s better than having the last choice of a majority of voters prevail.

That happened in the Republican primaries in 2016. Donald Trump won with the largest vote share, but not a majority, against three center-right candidates.

The same could happen in the Democratic contest if Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar continue to split the anti-Sanders vote.

But a single-day primary would create two new problems:

  1. It would make it difficult for lesser-known and lesser-funded politicians to compete if candidates needed to mount a national campaign from the start.
  2. It wouldn’t give the party or the press a lot of time to vet candidates. It’s only now that Sanders is the frontrunner that the media is starting to look into his past sympathies for far-left regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua.

Random states

Another possibility is having several states chosen at random go first before letting the rest of the country vote in two or three “Super Tuesdays”.

The risk with that approach is that an unrepresentative sample of states could end up at the front.

If instead of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the first four states were, by chance, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, I doubt many Democrats would be happy with that. (All four are white, rural and conservative.)

Same regions, different states

An argument in favor of the current four is that they roughly represent four parts of the country: Iowa the interior and Midwest, New Hampshire the Northeast, Nevada the West and South Carolina the South.

Instead of allowing the same four states to represent those four regions every time, in the same order, my suggestion would be to pick a state at random in each region and rotate the four regions every four years.

The South could be first next time and Georgia drawn to represent it. The West could be next and California or Hawaii might represent it.

Given that Democrats are largely uncompetitive in Alaska and the sparsely populated Great Plains between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, I would lump those in with the industrial Midwest and give Arizona and New Mexico, which have large Latino populations, to the West. But they could also be separate, or Democrats could use the four Census regions and separate the Midwest and West down the Great Plains.

Having four or five early primaries, in states chosen at random but within predefined regions, would make the nominating contest more diverse without sacrificing the retail politics that gives newcomers a chance to prove themselves or cutting short the time needed to test candidates.