Magazine

OPINION | political science

Are the Primaries a Failed Idea?

That's the smart take you keep hearing. Here's why the messy system actually, really, kinda works.

campaign signs

Everyone knows the primary process is broken. As critics reliably tell us every four years, it assigns far too much power to the very white, very small, very unrepresentative early states of Iowa and New Hampshire; it deprives bigger, more diverse states of their proper role in choosing a party’s candidate. As a result, we have a woefully underqualified celebrity in the White House and a lackluster field of challengers to take him on. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt is just the latest to excoriate the system: “No wonder,” he wrote, “the current president is a reality-television star, not to mention the most unfit occupant of the office in our country’s history.” It’s the kind of argument that has been made with regularity every four years, as newspaper headlines, news magazine covers and social media outlets ask: “Is this any way to pick a president?”

There’s just one problem with what everyone knows: it’s wrong.

If you look at how the primaries have really turned out—beginning in 1972 when they began to become the main way parties picked their candidates—it turns out that as often as not, big, diverse states have played a major role in picking the nominee. And when it comes to candidate fitness, the primary process has almost always ended with the selection of fully credentialed candidates. Even the obvious outlier now in residence on Pennsylvania Avenue may demonstrate the vitality of the system, in his own way: It gave voters a chance to reject the standard credentials when disaffection with politics as usual reached a critical mass.

The critiques of the primary system focus on both process and outcome; on both counts, the system is nowhere near as weak, or as predictably flawed, as the critics would have it. Turn to process first. The sins of the Iowa caucuses are many; I’ve made a quadrennial habit of denouncing them, as I did here four years ago. But their actual influence over the campaign is hugely overstated. Some years it has been significant; others, irrelevant.

Jimmy Carter turned the Iowa caucuses into a key staging ground by coming in first among candidates in 1976 (he finished behind “uncommitted”) after an effort that drew the attention of New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple Jr. in the fall of 1975. Since then, two Democrats—John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008—gained significant power by winning the caucuses. (There’s an irony to Obama’s win: Iowa is roundly denounced—most recently by Julián Castro—as a megaunrepresentative ultrawhite state, but Obama’s win there totally reshaped the battle for African American votes; what had been a close contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton became an overwhelming, decisive advantage for Obama when he proved he could win there.)

In other races, however, Iowa has meant nothing to the Democratic battle. Walter Mondale won in a landslide in 1984, but eight days later, Gary Hart beat him in New Hampshire, altering the state of the race. Michael Dukakis finished third in Iowa in 1988 before going on to capture the nomination; Bill Clinton and other Democrats ceded the caucuses to native son Tom Harkin in 1992; Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders effectively tied there in 2016.

For Republicans, Iowa has meant even less: Except for 2008, when Mike Huckabee’s win derailed Mitt Romney’s attempt to wrap up the nomination early, Iowa has had almost no impact on the outcome. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, John McCain and Donald Trump all lost Iowa on their way to the nomination.

For New Hampshire—technically, the nation's first primary—the importance is equally erratic. A few decades ago, a popular political axiom had it that “the road to the White House runs through Manchester.” That was before three presidents in a row won the White House after losing New Hampshire. (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama.) In these and other cases, what happened in New Hampshire triggered a lengthy nominating contest in which later, bigger, more diverse states were crucial.

In 1972, George McGovern lost New Hampshire, but Ed Muskie’s win wasn’t big enough to carry him to the Democratic nomination; when he faltered, the battle extended all through the primary calendar. McGovern’s victory in winner-take-all California—a win that had to survive a convention rules challenge—was the key. In the next election cycle, on the Republican side, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford effectively tied in New Hampshire—amounting to a defeat for the favored Reagan. His campaign was a step away from extinction, but a win in North Carolina led to victories in later states, and to the last genuinely contested convention battle.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter’s decisive New Hampshire win and a string of subsequent victories had challenger Ted Kennedy on the brink of ending his campaign. But Kennedy’s surprising landslide win in New York turned the contest competitive enough to produce a deeply divided (if not fully contested) nomination fight at the Democratic convention. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s nomination was secured not by the early states, but by primary victories in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania.

In 2008, John McCain’s financially strapped campaign got critical energy from a New Hampshire win, but it was a string of victories in South Carolina, Florida, California and New York—many of which were winner-take-all primaries—that secured his victory. That same year, Obama and Hillary Clinton also competed all the way to the end of the primary calendar. Though Clinton won most of the big state primaries, the delegate allocation rules gave her a relatively modest advantage; Obama’s lopsided wins in smaller states wound up giving him the edge.

If you’re looking for a pattern here, good luck. For every wire-to-wire leader, there’s a fight to the finish. For every frontrunner who wins unscathed, there’s a frontrunner who suffers serious setbacks before prevailing, and another whose campaign ends in early defeat (Ed Muskie, Rudy Giuliani, Scoop Jackson).

For every campaign where one of the early states wields disproportionate clout, there are others—many others—where the bigger states are the ones that carry the decisive weight.

Now what about the quality of the candidates delivered by the primary process? Critics will point to the weighty presidents produced by the “smoke-filled rooms” and “back room deals”—FDR, Truman, Ike. (Not so often cited is the fact that those rooms also gave us presidents like Warren Harding, or even lesser nominees like Alton B. Parker and John Davis.)

And the primaries? Over the past 48 years, the primaries have crowned a string of highly credentialed candidates: two sitting vice presidents, a three-term senator and decorated veteran, a successful businessman turned successful governor, a former secretary of State and a two-term governor of the most populous state in the nation.

As candidates, and as presidents, these nominees reflect a wide range of success and failure. But in the most basic sense, these successful navigators of the primary process were, in every case, fully credentialed candidates. The party insiders might have preferred others, but none of them would have been disqualified by a more “insider” process as unfit for the job of president.

That leaves us, of course, with the current occupant of the White House, who snatched the Republican nomination by almost running against the party itself, jetting from rally to rally, waging Twitter war on his rivals, appalling pundits and insiders but then cleaning up with the party's actual voters. It’s a fair judgment that in the case of Trump, the Republican Party failed in the one task left to a party apparatus in a time when rank-and-file voters are the principal deciders, and that is the “in-case-of-emergency-break-glass” role of determining that a candidate is simply unacceptable as a potential president. As today’s headlines make clear, we are still living with the consequence of that failure.

But even here, there is a case to be made that the primary offered a voice to millions of voters—14 million of them—who were sufficiently fed up with traditional political choices to reach far outside the political system for a nominee. (It’s also the case that if the Republican Party had adopted the Democratic Party's rules—no winner-take-all contests, proportional allocation of votes at the state and congressional District levels—a determined party establishment might have denied Trump the nomination.) More fundamentally, the election of Trump does not demonstrate that the process itself is fatally flawed, anymore than a single plane crash undermines the safety of air travel.

Does this mean there’s no room for improvement? Of course there is: Iowa and New Hampshire need to be removed from their privileged positions on the simple ground of parity. It’s time for other (less frigid? more diverse?) places to receive the attention, the pandering and the economic benefits of an overhyped contest.

But the saving grace of the system we have is that there really is no way to chart how the contest will take shape. Sure, it could be over by New Hampshire, but it could just be beginning on Super Tuesday. Maybe it’s fatal for a candidate to skip the early dates; maybe a big name with $50 billion to spend can override that. Maybe four or five candidates with ample war chests will produce that contested, multiballot convention that two generations of politics junkies have dreamed of. The point is, the current process can and had led to all sorts of contests; and that may be its principal virtue.