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Would open primaries have given us better presidential nominees?

Tim Penny
Tim Penny

Former Congressman Tim Penny, mild-mannered and equable, would seem an unlikely doomsday prophet. But he has a gloomy assessment of this presidential election. 

“I always thought of myself as an optimist about our system,” he said. “I think I still believe that, but I have said on more than one occasion that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. This presidential election is perhaps it. Two candidates that are equally disliked are the only choices we’ve got.”

Penny believes that regardless who wins the election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will exacerbate the polarization of America’s political parties. 

According to Penny, it’s the parties, not the people, that have produced candidates Clinton and Trump. “The public is not as polarized as the parties, but the party is the gatekeeper. And each is dominated by its own special interest groups,” he said.  “They set the terms and tone of the debate. You dance with the ones that brung ya.”

The national parties, particularly the Republican Party, have bragged about record primary and caucus turnout in 2016.  But it was still only a fraction of voters, notes Penny. “When you add up all the people that participated, the vast majority did not participate and ended up choosing between two candidates they may not have chosen in the first place.”

“Open primaries would have opened the door for someone other than Bernie Sanders being the alternative to Clinton,” he said. “And Trump would have had a little more difficult time. Rank-and-file Republican voters are very animated and fired up to send a message and he tapped into that mood very effectively. But if a broader swath were allowed to vote his number would not have been as strong.” 

Penny insists, though, the primaries must be open, that is: anyone can vote in either a Democratic or Republican primary. Minnesota will go to a presidential primary system in 2020. The state will sponsor the primary elections and voters can decide which party primary they want to participate in. And while the vote itself is private, the party ballot the voter selected will be public information, which will allow the parties to be able to collect voter identification to build their voter base.

“The interests of the state are not tied to the two political parties, but that was the quid pro quo [of the legislation],” Penny said.  “That is in a sense a corrupt idea — using the power of the state to benefit a political party.” 

Spoken like the independent that Penny has evolved into. Penny doesn’t need political affiliation in his role as head of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, an economic development organization. But he’s still a believer in the political process and that’s where he finds the silver lining in this year’s presidential election. “It may be that it could be the catalyst for people to say we’ve got to find a different caliber of leader,” he said.

Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/03/2016 - 09:09 am.


    I wonder if ranked choice voting would have made a difference.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/03/2016 - 09:14 am.

    …The public is not as polarized as the parties…

    I have to differ with that statement.

    The people have been polarized by a media that only varies from the lies spouted by Trump in the coyness of their phrasing. Trump and Palin are the “peoples candidates”, certainly not the party’s candidates. Although with their guidance being the wind of the blowhard popularity, the GOP has seemingly thrown in the towel on seriousness and jumped on the crazy wagon also.

    The GOP has wandered far down the rabbit-hole of pandering into the old white voters who swallow the Fox whole.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 10/03/2016 - 09:50 am.

      Neal, I agree Trump is a disaster but are you saying the last

      8 years of Obama have been good for Americans? His major achievement, Obamacare (written by lobbyists and academic elites) is falling apart. Dodd/Frank hurt regular folks helped Wall Street, unlimited money printing hurting everyone, Mid East falling apart, ISIS (remember when the caliphate was 1st brought up Obama laughed at the idea) JV growing, wages going down, part time jobs counted just as much as full time, welfare up, house ownership down.

      Hillary promises more of the same, what has she said she would differently? That is why she is not running away with an election versus a candidate who can’t stay on message for more than 4-5 days. At least try to be somewhat realistic in talking about both parties and the problems.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/03/2016 - 03:48 pm.

        Well, regardless of your personal opinion, the US is in better shape than virtually every other country in the world, coming out of the second deepest economic crisis in history, and after years of trying to unwind an unwise and heavy-handed intervention in a part of the world we clearly are not informed enough to be involved with.

        Sorry about your party and your candidate, but the dangers of a Trump (candidate of the people) Presidency are too great.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/04/2016 - 06:17 am.

        Conservative Amnesia

        Oh boy, this is really rich. Conservatives have discovered so many this since January 20, 2009. They discovered income inequality and that middle class incomes have been falling. Of course, those trends date to the reign of their vaunted hero Ronald Reagan, but their memories don’t recall that. This trend has marched in lockstep with the decline in union density, which conservatives doubled and tripled down on. That’s like outlawing home security systems then complaining that home burglaries are up.

        Conservatives, of both parties, aided and abetted financial deregulation that crashed the global economy. But they don’t recall that happened before 2009. Unlimited printing of money? When the only economic actor still standing is the government (so much for the magic of the market place), of course government spending rises. It’s happened in every recession we’ve had, except for this one. And when the recovery was slow (by design so as to make Obama a One! Term! President!) of course they blamed that on Obama.

        And that unlimited printing of money has led to outrageous inflation, hasn’t it? Why it’s over shot the Fed’s goal by, by, oh wait… they can’t even hit their target of 2%. God forbid we cut the bloated military budget. Not that Obama has even considered that.

        Welfare up? Gee, I wonder why. Could it be because a deregulated Wall Street and mega banks sold bogus securities (while betting against them) to investors, crashing the economy? The second Bush admin. had a zero net job creation record. And you don’t like Obama’s job creation record? Seriously? Some of those investors sold bogus investments were pension plans, and now we’re told pensions don’t work.

        Part time job holders who want full time work have been counted as “employed” for decades, not just since 2009. Check out the U6 unemployment rate, it’s always been a more complete picture, even during the days of Ronald Reagan.

        When a D is in office, conservatives always rediscover the deficit. When an R comes in, they always forget about. Amnesia in deed.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/04/2016 - 10:44 am.


          You know how you can tell that the sitcom “All in the Family” predates Reaganomics?

          Archie Bunker is a blue collar worker in a low-level position (he works the loading dock) who owns his own home and is supporting a stay-at-home wife, a grown daughter, and her husband, who is a full-time college student.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/07/2016 - 08:53 am.

      Polarized publics….

      I’ve never thought the pubic is nearly as polarized as the republican party. For one thing the number don’t add up. Sure if ask republicans and democrats questions you get different answers but you have to remember that republicans and democrats don’t actually represent the majority of people in the country, they’re just the only two parties we have.

      Furthermore, decades of in-depth surveys and research have always revealed that the American’s are more liberal than they vote. For instance if you ask people about abortion they may report being anti-choice, but if you probe and ask stuff like whether or not women should go to jail or otherwise be prosecuted as some kind of criminal the vast majority will say:”no”. Likewise people will claim to be anti-labor union but if you drill down and ask about specific labor rights the vast majority support the labor rights unions fight for. You get the same results with environmental regulation, taxes, education, etc. By and large if people don’t know they’re talking about a “hot” button issue they’re quite liberal.

      The polarization we see is largely a skewed discourse produced by media coverage that focuses on differences rather than similarities.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 10/03/2016 - 09:32 am.

    The RNC and DNC have too much power,

    but do they pick the candidates? They dole out money to their favorite candidates and have influence on who gets the party nomination, but how much? You saw the head of the DNC have to resign after getting caught pushing Clinton (hired by Clinton campaign after being fired by DNC). I am pretty sure no one in the RNC wanted Trump to win, they just couldn’t stop it because so many folks are fed up with the political system. Bush was terrible for 8 years, no child left behind, invading Iraq, adding debt, ignoring housing bubble (started with community investment act plus more Govt intervention with Freddy & Fanny) and Obama was worse. The last 16 years led to Trump and Bernie.

    I hate to say it but we may be in a period of total revolt by voters. Trump types for conservatives and socialists like Bernie and Warren for liberals. The RNC and DNC will have their favorites but folks seem too pissed off at what is happening in their lives, in the inner city, race relations, demise of public education, crony capitalism, Dodd/Frank destroying local banks, war on poverty being a joke, property taxes sky rocketing, over regulation killing small businesses, Obamacare disaster, war on mining,logging, oil, gas, manufacturing fleeing USA and the list is endless! I don’t think even the power of both national parties can over come that.

  4. Submitted by David Wintheiser on 10/03/2016 - 11:22 am.

    Parties may be the problem…

    …but open primaries are not the solution. Far from Penny’s quoted suggestion that Donald Trump “would have had a little more difficult time” in open primaries, Trump did extremely well in open primaries to start the primary season, to the point where it’s arguable that the momentum he’d developed from the open primaries he’d won finally began to carry over into the closed primaries largely being won by Ted Cruz.

    GOP Open primaries up to Super Tuesday:
    South Carolina (Feb 27 – won by Trump)
    Alabama (Mar 1 – won by Trump)
    Arkansas (Mar 1 – won by Trump)
    Georgia (Mar 1 – won by Trump)
    Massachusetts (Mar 1 – won by Trump)
    Tennessee (Mar 1 – won by Trump)
    Vermont (Mar 1 – won by Trump)
    Virginia (Mar 1 – won by Trump)
    Texas (Mar 1 – won by Cruz)

    GOP Closed primaries up to Super Tuesday:
    New Hampshire (Feb 9 – won by Trump)
    Oklahoma (Mar 1 – won by Cruz)

    Granted, winning one of two closed primaries isn’t any solid evidence that Trump had significant difficulty in closed primary elections, but if open primaries were such a problem for him, it’s hard to explain how he won eight of the nine held up to and including Super Tuesday. If anything, this information supports the idea that Mr. Trump was nominated in spite of the opposition of his party, not because of that party’s support, and that while open primaries may be a tool to help the public wrest some amount of control away from the party over nominees for office, you have to be careful what you wish for.

    I think that Mr. Penny’s analysis that using the power of the state to support the existing political party structure is corrupt is an accurate analysis. But the use of open primaries may well be a cure that’s worse poison than the disease.

    David Wintheiser

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/03/2016 - 12:21 pm.

    Yes and No

    Yes, the parties ARE the problem, but it’s the party elite, especially the democratic party elite, that’s typically given us these dullard candidates. As one a member of that elite I’m not sure Penny knows exactly where to point the finger, but he’s right when he says the primaries should all be open. I doubt we would have gotten some other than Bernie however, on the contrary I think we would have gotten Bernie. It was pretty clear that closed primaries were one of the tools the party elite used to promote Clinton.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/03/2016 - 02:41 pm.

    The political parties have a right to choose their candidates. If they choose to have primaries, those primaries should not be “open,” which means that non-party people can help select a party’s candidate. Does that make sense? No. And it has worked out badly when implemented (GOP voters choose a “ringer” for the Democrats to run against their boy, etc.)

    What’s wrong here is who chose Trump. Republican voters in primaries.

    Hillary Clinton is the choice of her party and her party’s voters: she beat Bernie Sanders fairly and squarely in the Democratic primaries and caucuses (Bernie WON in Minnesota’s system of caucuses). She’s highly qualified, and for most of us who chose her for candidate, she is more probably going to get things done. No problems with the Democratic candidate (and to equate how “awful” she is with the utter disaster that Trump is, is simply a Republican rhetorical ploy that holds no truth).

    What has debased this election is Donald Trump. He cannot pay attention to issues, which are complex. He cannot debate–see last Monday for evidence. He is crude–see debate interruptions he made–and he has degraded our political discourse–see his childlike simple sentences and compulsive redundancy, a form of pounding on the table. He lies. And the real problem is the Trump supporter, who believes everything he says because he says it. Tragic.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/04/2016 - 08:25 am.


      There are two inescapable facts in American politics. A) Neither party has the votes to actually win elections, they both have to attract votes from beyond their “membership”. Independents are now the largest “party” in America. B) As Penny observed, the whole point of having a democracy is to service the people, not the political party’s. When those party’s are literally incapable of producing candidates that a majority of Americans actually want to vote for, those party’s have lost their ability to service the nation. Winning elections isn’t about finding candidates that registered democrats or republicans want to vote for, it about producing candidates the nation wants to vote for.

      Closed primaries that exclude the very same voters who will decide the election cannot select popular candidates and don’t serve the party’s or the nation. Democrats in particular have been prone to the delusion that they can reject the popular candidates that people want to vote for and still get the votes. This has left us with a unique situation wherein for the first time in US history no matter who wins in November, the most unpopular and distrusted president in history will be taking office. This is why Clinton is virtually tied with a train wreck in stead of leagues ahead.

      Aside from a popular revolt against the political elites the two party’s are very different and actually got to their candidates via different routes. The problem with closed primaries on the democrat side is/was that they don’t exclude non-democrats, they exclude unregistered democrats. In the real electoral world that’s a distinction without a difference that nevertheless often keeps the most viable candidates off the ballot. The registration requirement effectively excludes new voters who want to be democrats at a time when democrats need new voters to win elections… how is that not stupid? Democrats think they can do that, and still get the votes… again… stupid.

      When we say closed primaries are a tool of exclusion that the democratic party used to exclude Sanders it’s clear and simple. In several close states and others it was clear that registration requirements were used to keep Sanders votes off the rosters. Sanders, not Clinton, was saddled with the additional burden of getting his voters registered, not simply getting them to vote for him. This combined with the super delegates, and a variety of other mechanisms gave Clinton the nomination.

      So Clinton supporters can brag about getting Clinton nominated, but they then must also take responsibility for getting the most distrusted and unpopular candidate in US history elected to the presidency, be it Trump or Clinton.

    • Submitted by Jim Halonen on 10/04/2016 - 09:55 am.

      I don’t think so

      “Hillary Clinton is the choice of her party and her party’s voters: she beat Bernie Sanders fairly and squarely” – Why did the DNC Chairperson get canned? Also, I seem to remember Bernie winning the popular vote of a state(s)… and then Hillary getting more delegates out of it. That’s “fairly and squarely”?

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/04/2016 - 09:38 am.

    “Open primaries would have opened the door for someone other than Bernie Sanders being the alternative to Clinton,”

    Were the Democratic primaries closed? Was someone on the Democratic side assigned the task of turning down candidate filings? How did Bernie Sanders sneak in when at the start he wasn’t even a Democrat?

    The reason why the Democratic nomination played out the way it did had nothing to do with the primary structure as such. The problem my party has is that with a series of losses in mid term elections, we just didn’t have a very deep bench of potential presidential candidates. There were other factors too. Hillary piled up a lot of early support which had the effect of scaring what promising candidates there were out of the race, candidate who after seeing the strong results Sanders managed to pile up probably spent the last few months kicking themselves for not giving it a try.

    There are deeper problems of course. Our political process seems to be deeply discouraging to a lot of capable people. When we as a nation have convinced ourselves that government isn’t a solution, it’s a problem, how many really able people want to be part of a problem?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/04/2016 - 11:04 am.


      I don’t see how you discount the democratic primary structure? The party openly and honestly admits that it has structured it’s nomination process in a such a way as to block candidates like Sanders from the nomination so we shouldn’t be surprised that it worked. I’m more surprised that Sanders did as well as he did. It was clear from the beginning that the party elite, chairperson, super delegates, etc. had decided that it was Hillary’s turn, and they made that happen. Closed primaries were clearly a part of that process.

      • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 10/04/2016 - 11:28 am.

        Maybe I’m wrong, but…

        … but weren’t there more open primaries in 2016 than in 2008 — when Hillary, who was also the presumed nominee at the start of that campaign — got beat?

        And the DNC doesn’t control whether a state holds a closed or open primary — that’s generally controlled by the state legislature in each state because it follows normal election processes. In caucus states (like our own), the parties have more sway on the open/closed question because it’s a party-controlled process.

  8. Submitted by Adam Miller on 10/04/2016 - 10:24 am.


    The party gatekeepers did not choose Trump.

    And Bernie did best in places, like Minnesota, where party affiliation was not an obstacle to participation.

    I’m for open primaries for the sake of fairness, but let’s not kid ourselves that it would have changed the result here.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/04/2016 - 12:03 pm.


      I think open primaries may have given the nomination to Sanders. You have to remember open mean open so in addition to all new unregistered democrats that the closed primaries excluded, there would have been millions of independent votes for Sanders as well. We know that Sanders polled much better with independents than Clinton and more importantly better than Trump as well. Independents don’t want to register with either party so the registration requirement no only block unregistered democrats but anyone else wants to vote for a nominee.

      I think Sanders could well have landed at the convention with the popular vote (minus the super delegates) and that would have been a serious problem for the democrats. Listen, we know the democratic party closed it’s system precisely to prevent something like that happening so let’s not deny it happens.

      • Submitted by Tom Clark on 10/06/2016 - 03:33 pm.


        Given that Sanders won the caucuses in Washington State and Nebraska but later lost the open primaries in both states to Clinton, my take is that the caucuses greatly favored Sanders who could count on those who had the time and could make the greater effort to go to their precinct caucus. Clinton did get more popular votes, so if all the caucus states had held primaries instead, her margin of victory would have been greater than it was.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/04/2016 - 04:20 pm.

      You’re wrong on that: Minnesota has political caucusing, by party. To participate in a Democratic caucus you have to sign your name to a pledge that you are, indeed, a Democrat and adhere to the party’ positions and values.

      Nothing “open” about that, if we’re being exact about terminology. And we should be.

      • Submitted by Adam Miller on 10/06/2016 - 01:09 pm.


        You don’t have to register ahead of time. Your pledge is entirely non-binding. You’re free to change it instantaneously in the next round of caucuses/primaries. Sounds pretty darn open to me.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/04/2016 - 12:23 pm.

    The party openly and honestly admits that it has structured it’s nomination process in a such a way as to block candidates like Sanders from the nomination so we shouldn’t be surprised that it worked

    They can admit what they want, but it’s still a fact that it’s pretty easy to register for a primary. Hillary Clinton had huge structural advantages as Jeb Bush did in the other party, yet she barely won. Had this been a normal year with a normal complement of candidates, I don’t think Hillary would have had any chance at all to win the nomination. The reasons why Hillary was the dominant candidate in the field had virtually nothing to do with the primary structure.

  10. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/04/2016 - 12:28 pm.

    Anybody who wanted to vote for Sanders only had to register as a Democrat before the primary or caucus. They have to vouch for the fact that they’re Democrats, though: the party has the right to pick its own candidate. The party has no responsibility to the general public to allow said public to determine who they’ll put up for an office.

    Independent voters may gripe a lot about the presidential choices left them in the general election by the people who actually paid attention during primary season (please think about that, when you’re blaming whoever for your so-called “awful choices”). Independents are usually the sorts who go blithely about their lives and don’t bother with politics, or much of anything civic, until very late in the game. They could register as Independents or Libertarians or Greens, or they could vote for whoever the minuscule Libertarian or Green parties put up. Or for Micky Mouse as a write-in. Usually they–and so-called “undecideds”–just don’t bother.

    What they can’t do is criticize the way Hillary Clinton simply out-hustled Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic nomination: She had been planning her candidacy since she lost the 2008 nomination to Barack Obama. All you had to do was watch her these past 8 years to see a consummate political planner go about not letting that happen a second time. Early on, before Bernie even declared candidacy, she had locked in the support of the political elite that knows how campaigns are won and how policy gets enacted into law; they knew from the get-go she can do it!

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/04/2016 - 01:25 pm.


      Open primaries wouldn’t change anything because it’s a solution that assumes a completely different problem. The problem isn’t about the ability to vote for whom you want, it’s about voting at all. It’s not like Independents don’t have primaries. Waiting until the field is picked over before taking action leaves no room for complaint.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/05/2016 - 09:01 am.


    There were multiple reports in several states that primary votes were tossed and voters were turned away because they weren’t registered and that party registrations were switched. This claim that all people have to do is register and it’s so easy to do looks a lot like one of the voter ID arguments. Obviously there are problems or we wouldn’t be discussing this, and Penny wouldn’t be writing about it.

    Listen, if you guys don’t think it makes a difference if primaries are closed or open, then open them up.

    Yes, MN has caucuses…? At least for now.

    The closed nature of the primaries is a basic part of the structure and is deliberately designed to control the outcome, i.e. suppress impure votes by non-vetted democrats. The idea that this process is irrelevant to outcomes is simply illogical.

    It’s probably naive to assume that national party leaders have zero influence on state parties. We know for instance that national leadership reached down to local Louie’s on Clinton’s behalf, isn’t that one of the things that prompted Wasserman Schulz’s (sp?) resignation? There’s obviously some coordination on a national level across states.

  12. Submitted by Tom Clark on 10/05/2016 - 03:11 pm.

    On open primaries

    Living in a state that has an open primary, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Crossover voting in Wisconsin’s primary has happened in the past (in 2012 there were Democrats who voted for Santorum in hopes of causing Romney problems, as there was no challenge to Obama that year) and you can be sure it would happen in Minnesota too when conditions are ripe for it to happen. So sometimes having open primaries can lead to mischief.

    Caucuses on the other hand appeal most to those devoted to politics, given the investment in time and effort involved in caucus participation versus simply voting. So primaries are preferred to caucuses in terms of getting more valid feedback from the public, and the difference between whether they’re open primaries or not isn’t that great. I’m happy Minnesota had ditched their Presidential caucuses in favor of opening up the process to more people.

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