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No state should have an outsized role in choosing a presidential nominee

Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking at the Iowa State Fair on August 10.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking at the Iowa State Fair on August 10, 2019.
It’s as inevitable as it is ridiculous. We’re about to obsess on Iowa polls, followed by Iowa caucus results, followed by a silly game called “How many tickets out of Iowa?”

In case the “tickets” reference doesn’t ring a bell, over recent cycles a political maxim has held that there are “three tickets out of Iowa,” meaning that anyone who didn’t finish in the top three in the Iowa caucus was finished and should go home. Lately, I see some speculation that the rule of three may not apply in 2020, but that can’t be known because there really is no such rule. It’s just a way of saying that the other 49 states, without ever having agreed to such a rule, have to pick from what Iowa leaves us because … well, just because.

I’ve expressed this view before but now’s the time to do it again. No state (nor any two states, since we’ll do it again with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary) should permanently be granted an outsized role in choosing our major party nominees for president, and even if there were an excuse (which there isn’t) for allowing the same states to always go first, these two largely rural, overwhelmingly white states would make poor choices.

The Iowa situation is further sillified (I made that word up) by the fact that it’s a caucus state, which further reduces participation to those hard-core few willing to sit through an hours-long process, which includes the likelihood that some who attend will not even get to register their support for their first choice because of the complicated rules of “viability.”

On the other hand, and running somewhat contrary to the rant just above, while finishing fifth or lower in Iowa probably means a candidacy will soon disappear, winning Iowa certainly doesn’t ensure anything.

On the Republican side, none of the past three Iowa caucus winners (Ted Cruz in 2016, Rick Santorum in 2012, Mike Huckabee in 2008) ended up winning the nomination. In fact, the ultimate 2008 nominee, John McCain, ran fourth in Iowa with 13 percent support, 21 points behind Huckabee and a fraction behind third-place finisher Fred Thompson (remember him?). So, apparently, even the three-tickets-rule is not perfect.

On the Democratic side, as a matter of fact, all of the recent Iowa winners did get the nomination. but, in the most recent case (2016), Bernie Sanders’ very strong second-place showing in Iowa (he finished two-tenths of one percent behind the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton) probably signaled the enervating Clinton-Sanders battle that probably ended up helping elect Donald Trump.

Anyway, these are really details that can be argued either way. The fundamental point is that we have 50 states, and 48 of them never agreed to make their choices for presidential nominees from a field winnowed to two or three by Iowans and Granite Staters (as New Hampshirites are sometimes called).

It’s too late to do anything different about the big problem of that duopoly this time, but my own suggestion is that, starting as soon as possible, states should be grouped into five clusters of 10 states each (or ten clusters of five if you prefer), and, over the course of several presidential elections, each cluster would have a chance to be first, second, etc., and last. Presumably, within each cluster, a particular candidate would see one state in which they have a decent chance of making a good showing. Or not. But at least the other 48 states would rise and fall in relevance over time, rather than the same two states being in charge of winnowing the field for the rest of us.

What think?

Comments (51)

  1. Submitted by Kathleen Harriman on 01/07/2020 - 11:40 am.

    I couldn’t agree more. Now let’s talk about the Electoral College…

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/12/2020 - 08:46 am.

      It seems no one cares to talk about the Electoral College.

      Abolishing it would put a few highly populated states in control of the country.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/12/2020 - 09:29 pm.

        That shows that you’re still thinking in terms of states. States would be irrelevant in a national popular vote, because even though we talk about “red” and “blue” states, those are fictions CREATED by the Electoral College.

        In reality, every state, every last one of them, is purple. Some are reddish purple, and others are bluish purple, but there is not one state in the entire Union where every individual belongs to the same political party.

        There are Democrats in Utah and Texas and Republicans in California and New York. There are Democrats in rural Minnesota, and about 20% of Minneapolis votes Republican. Note that some precincts in New York City went against the general trend and voted for Trump.

        Under the current system, the presidential vote of a Democrat who lives in Texas or a Republican who lives in California *literally does not count.*

        Furthermore, the idea that candidates would slight the small states in a national popular vote ignores the current reality. Candidates ignore the small states NOW. If you track candidates’ campaign trips, you will see that once they have the nomination, they concentrate almost entirely on swing states like Ohio and Florida. They make endless trips to that small group of states with a few token visits to the states that are reliably in their column.

        I remember reading once that in fact, recent close presidential elections have come down to a few counties in Ohio.

        We don’t elect governors by county, and we don’t elect mayors by city block. We give each individual a vote.

        If we had a national popular vote, everyone’s vote would count exactly the same. The rancher in Montana would have exactly the same power as the autoworker in Detroit and the stockbroker in New York.

        The current system favors the Republicans, so they are unlikely to change it, so they counter the commonsense arguments in favor of national popular vote with fear tactics: the idea that “3 million illegal immigrants will determine the election.” It’s a variation of what I’ve seen online in the Strib, commenters claiming that “the DFL wins only because it buses illegal immigrants and welfare mothers from precinct to precinct.”

        I’ve even seen a YouTube video which purports to show “illegal immigrants voting.” What it shows is a polling place in Arizona with a lot of brown people lined up. Think about the demographics of Arizona for a moment: the nation’s largest Native American population and a significant number of residents whose ancestors arrived when the state was part of Mexico.

        These claims are both racist and insulting, as if to say that anyone with a Spanish accent or brown skin is an illegal immigrant, or that “real” Americans (whatever a real American is) vote Republican exclusively and that people who vote Democratic are not “real” Americans.

        It’s pathetic when arguments against the abolition of an 18th-century construct designed to preserve slavery become so desperate.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/15/2020 - 06:20 am.

          Yes, l too have seen YouTube videos. There is no vetting process for posting one, and there is no prize for finding one with false or misleading information.

          The U.S. Constitution is an 18th century construct. Still pretty good, in my estimation. Do tell, how was the Electoral College used to preserve slavery?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/13/2020 - 12:12 pm.

        “Highly populated,” meaning “a lot of people live there.”

        I thought we had a government by the people, not by land mass.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/14/2020 - 06:31 am.

        The title, “No state should have an outsized role in choosing a presidential nominee”. But, a couple states should have an outsized role in choosing a President. That sounds very principled, indeed.

        We are all very familiar with the arguments against the Electoral College. What I haven’t heard about is the legislature writing an amendment to abolish it. If this were important, surely the House would take it up. Considering all the arguments in its favor, It might have a better chance of accomplishment than their impeachment project.

        The Electoral College doesn’t favor the Republican Party.

        For this government to be truly of the people, each state should have one Senator for each congressional district. Better yet, a unicameral legislative body in DC.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2020 - 10:26 am.

          “But, a couple states should have an outsized role in choosing a President. That sounds very principled, indeed.”

          That also sounds like a misreading of what electing the President by the popular vote would do. Electing the President by the popular vote would, in essence, take the states out of the equation. The will of the majority would suffice even if they are concentrated in the Cities of the Plain and not the “real” America.

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/14/2020 - 09:21 pm.

            The question no proponent of abolishing the Electoral College can answer. Why is there no traction for this great idea? No one in Congress is championing such an amendment.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/15/2020 - 08:58 am.

              According to a Gallup Poll, U.S. adults support amending the Constitution so that the winner of the popular vote would win the election rather than keeping the current Electoral College system by 55% to 43%.

              Why has Congress not followed up on this? HJ Res. 7 would abolish the electoral college, but that bill has been stuck in committee for the past year. Maybe the Republicans are a bit defensive about this, seeing as how Our Beloved leader did not win the popular vote, and George W. Bush lost the popular vote by a very slim margin in 2000. The electoral college is their best shot at electing presidents.

              • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/16/2020 - 05:04 am.

                The resolution, sponsored by a single Representative from Tennessee, was referred to subcommittee over a year ago. Subcommittee is where resolutions go to die. The Democrats control the House; they seem disinterested. This is the type of traction I was talking about – black ice.

  2. Submitted by Alan Straka on 01/07/2020 - 02:39 pm.

    I would group states by electoral votes. Those states with the fewest votes would get to vote first and those with the most would vote last. Thus the states with only 3 votes would all vote first. California and Texas would vote last. That way those states with the fewest votes when combined would have a clout similar to the bigger states. With the number of votes available at the end, even trailing candidates would likely still have a chance at the very end. California and Texas would still have the ability to determine the outcome but the contest wouldn’t end early. In the unlikely event someone was able to garner enough votes prior to the last primary day, it is likely they would have won the two biggest states anyway.

  3. Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/07/2020 - 03:04 pm.

    Politically, as a paralyzed nation we cannot reform ourselves in any area no matter how irrational the status quo because…um, tradition. Presumably your proposed reform would require some sort of federal legislation, since neither IA or NH appear too willing to give up their cherished out-sized influence over the “process”.

    And federal legislation can no longer be passed to address any issue in America, however critical. Thanks to Mitch McConnell and the Repub senate, we can’t even have a vote on (let alone enact!) legislation to protect the integrity of our elections from foreign interference, for God’s sake. So reform of the presidential nominating process is rather far down the ladder, even though it has now failed to such a spectacular degree that it produces nominees like the egregiously unfit and woefully unqualified “billionaire” Donald Trump. I suppose one could declare that proves the process has reached the stage of national crisis…but even a reformed process cannot make the voters more competent!

    In any event, it appears that the exploding and exponential amounts of money now available to presidential candidates are making these early rural state contests less “fatal” to more marginal candidates than in previous decades, as can be seen in the recent Repub nominating process that produced the grievously incompetent Trump. A single Billionaire can now apparently buy a personal candidate, and we now have created enough billionaires (via decades of conservative tax cuts) that in recent years several of them have decided to take $100 million-or-so out of pocket change and run for the office, despite their manifest lack of qualifications (Trump, followed now by Steyer and Bloomberg).

    Interestingly, Steyer and Bloomberg have opted to spend (waste?) their money on themselves (ala Trump), whereas conservative billionaires had previously been satisfied in picking a more traditional candidate on whom to confer one’s largesse. But this development, too, shows the terrible influence of Trump, in this as in all things.

    On the other end of the spectrum, the internet apps allowed small donors to fund Obama and Sanders and now (mostly) Warren. So such “people-powered” candidates are pretty much assured of being able to weather the ridiculous spectacle of IA and NH demanding always to be “first” in the nation, and thus can be around for when larger, pluralist states get to vote.

    So 2020 looks to permit well over half a dozen minor Dems to continue their quixotic campaigns until the bitter end, with the result of a splintered left and divided or hung convention. So many candidates smelled Trump’s blood in the water that the sharks may end up tearing themselves apart! It’s the horrendous Trump’s only real chance, and he will still badly lose the popular vote, no matter what.

    • Submitted by Tom Crain on 01/08/2020 - 01:27 pm.

      There is no provision for the role of political parties in the United States Constitution, so it is each of the two parties that can put an end to this nonsensical system of allowing small and non-representative states greater influence in the candidate selection. Each party sets its own calendar and timing tier system of scheduling rules, and can strip states of delegates if they move their primaries early.

      Blame the grid-locked parties, not the grid-locked congress. Honestly, I rarely see support of the current system except from the party hacks.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/10/2020 - 01:33 pm.

        Blame the voters who claim they hate gridlock and partisanship, but who happily vote for and cheer for politicians who demonize their opponents.

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/07/2020 - 03:46 pm.

    I agree completely.

    And the fact that this has been frequently proposed as common sense improvement and primarily opposed by Pizza Ranch proprietors in Iowa it is amazing that ZERO progress has been made.

    The complete resistance to improving any aspect of our electoral system is further testimony to the total dysfunction of our 2 party system.

    WHO MOVED MY CHEESE???

    http://www.butler-bowdon.com/spencer-johnson—who-moved-my-cheese.html

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/07/2020 - 04:25 pm.

    In other words, we still haven’t decided whether we’re a sovereign nation, or a union of sovereign states. Since the power to change the system (amend the Constitution) rests with the small states who benefit from the current system, the status is likely to remain quo. The vote of a person in Wyoming counts a lot more than that of a resident of California or Texas, despite the fact that the are all citizens of the United States.

  6. Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/07/2020 - 04:39 pm.

    “the enervating Clinton-Sanders battle that probably ended up helping elect Donald Trump.”

    It wasn’t the battle that helped elect Trump, it was the quality of the nominee.

    While we’re on the subject of discussing the shortcomings of various methods of selecting nominees, can we also find fault with the population demographics that too frequently choose mediocre candidates?

    What do Gore, Kerry, Clinton & Biden all have in common?

    Hint: they’re establishment, “safe” candidates with close ties to the donor class. Ugh.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/08/2020 - 10:20 am.

      It didn’t help that Sanders ran a dishonest campaign against Clinton and continued to do so long after it was clear he had no chance.

      • Submitted by Tom Crain on 01/08/2020 - 07:35 pm.

        Yes, he should never have accepted those pre-debate questions from DNC Chair Donna Brazile. Totally dishonest.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/09/2020 - 12:50 pm.

          Yes, Sanders’s use of the debate question issue is a great example of his dishonesty. I was thinking more of how he should not have breached Clinton’s voter data, but the worst part about that was when he tried to portray himself as the victim and sued the DNC when they tried to stop him from doing so.

          My biggest criticism is really the fact he kept attacking Clinton long after he had no chance. How he kept claiming conspiracies even though he was millions of votes behind. How he wanted to nullify the millions of black and latino voters who overwhelmingly voted for Clinton.

          • Submitted by Tom Crain on 01/09/2020 - 07:56 pm.

            Pat, I was being sarcastic. I should have used the ” /s” after my comment. It was Brazile-the acting DNC chair- who tipped off the Clinton campaign to the debate question. I have no idea how this can be spun in any way against the Sander campaign. There was plenty of other shenanigans by the Clinton controlled DNC.

            I think history has shown (thank you wiki leaks!) how dishonest the DNC and by extension Hillary Clinton campaign was in the 2016 Dem Primary. In fact her duplicity goes back to the 2008 Primary with Obama. If you’d like I can list the gruesome details for you but I have feeling you know well enough.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/09/2020 - 07:49 am.

        Dishonest is what you get when you cross a DNC, a corporate media complex, and a ‘She Deserves It” campaign conspiring to shut out Bernie.

        Because Sen Clinton supporters still can’t acknowledge that (or the failure of the Obama economic model), is another reason Dems are likely to lose to Trump in 2020.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/09/2020 - 12:54 pm.

          Bernie didn’t get shut out of anything. Millions of people just preferred his opponent. If he hadn’t benefited from success in voter-suppressing caucuses and open primary states where he got a lot of Trump votes, it would have been even more of a blowout.

          • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/09/2020 - 01:36 pm.

            Sort of like he hasn’t been shut out of media attention in this election? He is like the guy who shall not be named.

            It is instructive that America’s elite despise Bernie far more than they do Trump. Trump in fact benefits from billions of dollars of free media. How does media deal with Bernie? Mostly by pretending he doesn’t exist. Watch the big guns come out though if it looks lime he might win the nomination.

            The wikileaks reveals from the DNC and Clinton campaign show clearly, they conspired with their favored media to shut Bernie out. When media weren’t shutting him out, they slandered him, shutting him down. He might have pulled ten million votes from Trump. But none of that matters to Clinton supporters who see Russians around every corner, or merely those corporatist and imperialist Dems who long for a return to the Obama years.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/07/2020 - 05:51 pm.

    I’m truly agnostic when it comes to specific plans, but I’d be willing to support just about ANY plan that will remove Iowa and New Hampshire as permanent gatekeepers to the nomination of any national candidate. I’d even be OK with picking any two other states, with a different pair for each election. Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative of the nation ethnically, politically, or economically.

  8. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/07/2020 - 08:37 pm.

    It’s like some folks in Iowa & New Hampshire have had incriminating photos of everyone in the leadership of both parties. For 40 years.

    Because when one state tries to go earlier than those two, or even close to them, party leaders fall all over themselves to protect Iowa & NH. Why? It’s maddening. I don’t get it. What’s in it for the parties that they feel the need to do that? Why do those two states have such sway over both parties?

  9. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/08/2020 - 08:42 am.

    The democrat’s should have one national primary day (or weekend) where party members can vote for their nominee. The entire nominating process would be determined by popular vote and the nominee would be chosen in one day!

    Forget the States!

    IN fact, you could have national ranked choice voting and a person who actually received fewer popular votes could end up as the nominee!.

    Democracy rules!

  10. Submitted by Robert Lilly on 01/08/2020 - 09:48 am.

    I am disappointed that nobody is even questioning the need for open primaries, it hasn’t always been this way. I think we would have much better candidates (and certainly wouldn’t have the current occupant) if the parties went back to picking their own nominee (smoke filled backrooms optional). At least we would be closer to a meritocracy if the elected representatives of the parties got together and selected the person they want to represent their party.

  11. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/09/2020 - 07:59 am.

    So many sour grapes. Hardly anyone on the left was complaining about electoral rules after Obama won twice.

    Here is an idea…offer up an economic model that puts regular citizens and small business before corporations, banks, billionaires and the eternal war complex…if you want to win elections.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/09/2020 - 12:27 pm.

      “Hardly anyone on the left was complaining about electoral rules after Obama won twice.”

      That could be because the election and re-election of Obama reflected the will of the people, and was not the product of some 18th century anti-democratic relic.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/09/2020 - 12:57 pm.

      What a silly comment. Obama won the popular vote and the electoral college comfortably. People complained when Gore won the popular vote in 2000 as well.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/10/2020 - 08:14 am.

      “18th century anti-democratic relic.”

      Without the electoral college, the presidency would be decided by cities, while rural people, who have suffered under economic rules which have hollowed out the rural economy, would have no say. That is undemocratic.

      Senator Clinton was not ignorant of the rules. Her people were told by dem agents in key states like Wis and Michigan, you can’t ignore us, but the Clinton Campaign chose to ignore them, they were so sure of their impending victory. The whole of the last three years has been sour grapes about it.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/10/2020 - 10:36 am.

        Without the electoral college, the presidency would be decided by a majority vote of the electorate, without giving special regard to where that electorate happens to live. That is democratic.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/13/2020 - 05:22 pm.

        Suburban voters would hold the most sway.

  12. Submitted by Chas Dalseide on 01/09/2020 - 12:36 pm.

    So how about a national primary nominating system? Ranked choice of course.

    Have one delegate per congressional district. Derate each vote to
    the percentage that the party carried in the last election. For those
    seven states with only one congressional district, also derate the
    vote to the percentage of the average district population.

    Requiring a public vote, would allow use of the internet without worrying about fraud.

    At the national convention, choose the ultimate candidate from the top
    three. Those who can’t make the cut will have to join a new party
    to get on the November ballot.

    Downsides:
    This would, I suppose, be like a party convention such as used in
    parliamentary systems. Only truly active members with some
    stature get to decide. Machine politics, perhaps. Not a popular
    vote. No groundswell draft movements. Spreads candidates so
    thin, there would be almost no local campaigning.

    • Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 01/10/2020 - 11:12 am.

      Why bother with delegates at all? What would be the drawbacks of just having a national primary election (ranked choice of course)? The instant runoff nature of ranked choice would ensure that most-preferred candidate would win. The other advantage to this is that it could be held much later in the spring/summer than these way-too-early caucuses/primaries.

      Even in the absence of other changes, I think there should be a federal law barring any caucus or primary from taking place prior to April 1…heck, maybe May 1. We have got to shorten the length of this process. It just bleeds donors’ money and wears people out before you even get to the general election campaign (against the actual opponent)

      • Submitted by Chas Dalseide on 01/10/2020 - 01:20 pm.

        Under the First Ammendment, political parties
        have the right to associate like a private club.
        They make their own bi-laws and rules. The
        Federal government or states have no power.
        The fact that some states have primary elections
        must be more or less a courtesy that has been
        accepted as fair enough by all concerned.

        The point of this article is to come up with something
        that spreads the process of selecting candidates
        among the 50 states, not just Iowa or New Hampshire.
        At one time, the public had no say at all. Plutocrats
        picked the candidate from favorite governors, senators,
        business tycoons, or professors. Some of them didn’t
        campaign, just let the magazines and newspapers make
        their case for them.

        Minnesota just changed the rules so you have to declare
        your party before you can vote in a primary. To have a
        nationwide internet open primary would be unwieldy. You could
        have sports figures, Hollywood figures, musicians, etc.,
        getting many popular votes, and they may not even belong
        to the party and have no dedication to its principles whatever.

        Having a party-based nominating committee with weighted voting
        power, is a suggestion I made to bring some order and to narrow
        the field of viable candidates. I am mostly worried about it being
        taken over by the insiders, and going back to the Gilded age.

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