The clunky and somewhat outdated process of how major parties select their presidential nominees is often criticized for being out of touch with modern politics. Beyond the caucus and primary voting itself, which often relies on a field of candidates that have been narrowed by arbitrary rules concerning debate participation, it’s the overall way that the parties approach the process of building a field in the first place which seems to provide skewed results.

So, what can be done to improve the presidential primary process? Writer David Leonhardt opined on Sunday in the New York Times calling the current process “absurd,” and suggested several ways to improve things:

It is, as Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja recently wrote in The Atlantic, “a spectacle that would have struck earlier generations as ludicrous.” It has come to resemble a reality television show, in which a pseudo-scientific process (polls plus donor numbers) winnows the field. The winner is then chosen by a distorted series of primaries and caucuses: The same few states always get outsize influence, and a crude, unranked voting system can produce a nominee whom most people don’t want.

No wonder the current president is a reality-television star, not to mention the most unfit occupant of the office in our country’s history. “The victory of Donald Trump in 2016 is best understood as a failure of the process,” the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has written, “and a failure of the Republican Party to prevent an outsider from taking its presidential nomination — the most important thing that U.S. political parties have.”

Republicans nominating Donald Trump in 2016 is only seen as a failure if you’re not a voter or supporter of his. If you ask his base, they’d argue that Leonhardt is wrong and that the process works just fine. On the other hand, Trump didn’t win the popular vote, so the argument that the current process can produce skewed candidates that don’t appeal to a broad electorate could be considered accurate.

Aside from identifying the issue of creating a “reality show” atmosphere, where candidates simply compete for attention and try to stand out with sometimes outlandish statements, what does Leonhardt propose to fix the issue?

His suggestions boil down to a few changes which would create a different field of candidates for voters to choose from and also ensure that current officeholders, like Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, for example, would be guaranteed a spot on a Democratic debate stage:

The first change should be to the debates. The candidates’ electoral history and qualifications currently count for nothing. The 2020 Democratic field, for example, has included four two-term governors, all of whom have been excluded from debates despite a track record of winning votes and governing successfully. In their place have been candidates, like Yang, who managed to crack 4 percent in a few polls.

It makes more sense for only the true polling leaders to be guaranteed debate slots. Beyond them, the party could set aside at least one spot for a governor and perhaps one for a senator from a large state or swing state.

This suggestion seems very reasonable. It does seem absurd, to borrow Leonhardt’s word, that sitting Senators and Governors are being left off the debate stage because they aren’t hitting an arbitrary polling threshold. Capping a debate stage at a certain number of candidates, of which certain slots are reserved for a current governor or senator, or even a congressman, seems reasonable to ensure a wider cross-section of the party’s bench.

Gov. Bullock, of Montana, for example, is a rare Democrat who won a Trump state quite easily in 2016. Under the current rules, he has basically no chance of getting anywhere close to the debate stage which has relegated his campaign into non-existence. The same can be said for Sen. Bennet, of Colorado, a pivotal state that Democrats need to hold in 2020.

Beyond the debates, what about the individual states? Leonhardt has some suggestions there as well:

A second set of changes would involve the primaries themselves. More states should adopt ranked-choice voting, allowing voters to list their second and third choices. Memphis, Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco and the state of Maine, among other places, have adopted this system for some elections.

Ranked choice can prevent the Trump phenomenon during the 2016 Republican primaries. Trump may have solid Republican support today, but he didn’t back then. Even though most Republican voters opposed him, his dedicated base let him emerge from a large field.

Donald Trump coasted through with a ceiling of support early on that maxed out in the mid-thirties. In a large field, however, that’s all he needed to win several early states that were winner-take-all in terms of delegates. The result was a lopsided delegate count that gave him an early lead despite sixty percent or more, in many cases, of Republicans voting for someone else.

The Democratic Primary is a little different in terms of awarding delegates since their side is entirely proportional. There is no winner-take-all among Democratic primaries and caucuses so coasting by with thirty percent support is possible, but a little harder. The battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016 is a good example of how the proportional delegate system can help keep a candidate from running away with the nomination once the field is narrowed.

Each and every one of these changes would ruffle feathers somewhere along the line. If the debate rules alotted special placement for Senators or Governors, then some current candidates would be left off the stage causing them to complain. It’s impossible to please everyone, but it’s certainly prudent to discuss changes that could improve the process.


  1. Of course the Democratic system is broken.

    You begin by using a primary system which is by congressional district and then by %s within the congressional districts with quotas on types of people while the national election with the exceptions of Maine & Nebraska are winner take all by state. Its as if baseball was played with 11 plays on a side and 5 outs an inning during Spring training and then the current rules when the regular season starts.It simply does not reflect the way that candidates have to run and win in November.

    Giving primacy to unrepresentative demographically states as the DNC does by scheduling two states that have populations that are 90.28% white (Iowa) & 93.9% white (New Hampshire) makes little sense, as does making a state that hasn’t voted for Democrat for President since 1976 (South Carolina ) in the first four primaries is just plain idiotic.

    Similarly having 5 states that have not gone for the Democratic Presidential candidate in the last 20 years [1964 (Oklahoma), 1976 {Alabama & Texas) or 1996 (Tennessee & Arkansas)] on Super Tuesday is not likely to yield an electable candidate.

    Shouldn’t the early primary states that are more reflective of the demographics of the entire country and are have a greater likelihood of being winnable in November be given a bigger say in the nomination process?

    Wouldn’t a primary season limited to 5 regional primaries spaced out at two week intervals
    with consideration where the Democratic voters live, and placing regions that the Democrats nearly always lose last in the calendar be more rationale, and more likely to produce winnable candidates?

    We can all agree the present system is broken, but can we ever agree how to fix it?

    • Good comments.

      Your last sentence is the crux of the issue. No state wants to give up any control but the parties need to realize they’re hurting themselves until they make some fixes. Therefore, no one can agree on how to fix it.

      I’ve always thought the regional primary idea seemed to make sense, maybe even have the order of the regions change every few cycles to eliminate the sense that a handful of states always retain control. This would give candidates an area to campaign in and give voters in specific regions more attention than they would otherwise receive.

      Lots of good ideas to improve the system but when will either party decide that it’s time to make a change? Probably never.

      • “Never” very True. The system seems fine to me. It’s the Dem candidates that suck. Actually the Dem party isn’t going to allow changes.

        • You’re partly right about Democratic candidates kind of sucking. Pete buttigieg awful epitome of douchebaggery. Elizabeth Warren, flip floppy wish-washy. Joe Biden borderline dementia and creepy girl sniffer. Yang, Ubi and disingenuous about Medicare for all. Cory Booker has got the crazy eyes sometimes says something funny. Amy Klobuchar, ?. The rest kind of feels the same.

          If there were just anybody that actually represented the needs and will of the people! O who could it be?
          Wait a second, I know! It’s Bernie Sanders! Bernie has led the fight for $15 , he’s marched with workers on strike so many times we’ve lost count, he saved the pensions of the IBM workers way back when , he fought during the Civil Rights Movement and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he was against the Iraq War which we now know was a disaster, he’s fighting for and wrote the Bill for Universal Health Care that will give every single man woman and child health care with no premiums, no out-of-pocket expenses saving the average American 90% of what they currently pay on Healthcare and giving the rest of them that don’t have it Healthcare! He led the first-ever audit on the Federal Reserve, he’s done everything in his power to stop the war in Yemen, he actually takes the time to meet with, listen to and take questions from the American people. These are just some of the things I can think of off the top of my head. There are so many other examples.

          BTW, Tulsi is pretty damn awesome too! And for all the yoga moms and lightworkers out there, Marianne Williamson!

          • While true that Bernie has been screaming about $15 when it came to his campaign the only way he could do it was by cutting the number of hours the people worked. In other words they made less money. As for marching with MLK even Snopes rates that claim as false. He did apparently attend MLK’s speech at the National Mall but attending a speech is not marching. Even Mother Jones says that his civil rights actions were both local and short – one arrest and he was done. Universal Health Care bill does not GIVE any one any thing (other than illegal aliens) since even he admits taxes will go up substantially. No he did not lead the first audit: “From 1933 to 1952 audit teams from the twelve Federal Reserve Banks performed the annual examination of the BOG’s books.” You might be interested in knowing that Bernie’s FREE healthcare and college came directly from the constitution of the USSR 1936 edition. Items 118 to 121, I believe.

          • Bernie sounds pretty great. Our health care system has been around for a long time. So tell me what is Bernie’s plan to help the thousands who will lose their jobs in the health care field? Also how much will Bernie’s health Care plan cost? Nothing is free, right?

            Also, No, the wealthy aren’t going to pay their fair share. Bernie should know this as he and others wrote the laws protecting the wealthy.

    • You seem to be all for giving the Democrats a boost. Would you be so giving if it were the Republicans who were in a jam??

      I thought the article we both read was about how we can fix the current primary setup. I guess you and I must have read different articles, I read the one I quoted in the previous sentence where you must have read one about how to circumvent the present setup to favor the Democrats.?

    • Oh Yes! I absolutely agree. How to fix it?
      First, vote for Bernie. No one has been working harder to bring this issue to light.

      Second, over turn Citizens United! Corporations are NOT PEOPLE!

      Third, Move to Rank Choice Voting AND abolish the Electoral College. This practice of the Electoral College is outdated and makes outcomes easier to manipulate.

      Fourth, Make ALL Primaries, OPEN PRIMARIES on ALL SIDES. This means that regardless of your political affiliation you can vote any given primary and you do not have to pick sides you can choose for all sides (Democratic, Republican, Independent) having a primary. This would be a benefit of ranked-choice voting. This also takes away a political party’s power over the voting process. They can no longer manipulate their primaries by suppressing the vote.

      Fifth, Move to publicly funded elections.

      Sixth, Declare voting days to be National Holidays.

      • I would like to add a seventh. How about the USA get in line with nearly every other major country and require that all US citizens have a National ID card. When voting you must produce this card or simple you don’t vote.?

        Also since you suggested that voting day be a national holiday then plain and simple to vote you have to go to your local polling station. Do away with mail in ballots and get rid of sending ballots to everyone, whether they want it or not like in California.?

      • Regarding open primaries, if you’re going that far, why not eliminate the general election? Make them all run in one primary per state, as you suggest. At the end of the primaries, whoever has received the most votes–in total–would become president. No electoral college. No swing states.

        The two-party system is all about two “tribes” fighting for control. That’s why Dems cross over to vote for the weakest Republican in a primary, and vice versa.

      • So, you want to tear up our Constitution which is written to protect the minority from pure democracy. You want to have middle America stay home on election day and accept whatever the coastal liberals throw their way? You want California politics and the poison it spreads as our way of governing? (CA has that “open primary”). There is a very good reason why the word Democracy does not appear in the US Constitution.

      • I guess that you prefer that all elections be decided by the big cites such as New Yuck city, Lost Angeles, Chycago, and of course the Gay Bay, Huston, and Dallas. What a wonderful thing that would be, I can just see the line at the welfare office stretching for blocks on end with everyone wanting their share of the handouts, but where is all that money going to come from? the Government doesn’t produce anything but hot air.

  2. No wonder the current president is a reality-television star, not to mention the most unfit occupant of the office in our country’s history. “

    Did Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja of The Atlantic watch the same Republican primary that the rest of the country did in 2016? Unlike this years Democratic primary and their inane rules which eliminate candidates because of arbitrary rules the Republican primary in 2016 had two debates back to back. The first for the candidates polling the best and the second for the candidates polling poorly. It became apparent after some time that the majority of Republicans liked Donald J Trump and he went on to win the Republican primary and eventually the presidency. That Democrats and their minions in the press are unwilling to accept this fact more than three years after Queen Billary had her head handed to her on a platter on election night shows how unhinged they are.?

    Oh by the way Barack Obama was the most unfit person ever to be president. When he is written about in the future people will learn that he was the most incompetent, incapable and impotent president in the history of the country.?

  3. It is broken when you have these Democrats fixing the vote by using Illegal Aliens and Dead people votes so they can win Illegally. That is the only way these evil Democrats can win by voter fraud.

  4. FAKE NEWS because it is not the presidential primary process that is being talked about. It is only the sliver that is Democrat that they are talking about. The actual headline should be: “Fixing the Broken Democrat Presidential Primary Process.” It is funny that they complain that “the current process can produce skewed candidates that don’t appeal to a broad electorate…” and their solution is to make sure that the Governor of Montana is on the debate stage. The justification is that a Governor is a proven vote getter. Yep – only in that one state. In Montana’s case the population is slightly over 1 million. So how is that an appeal to a broad electorate of more than 120 million? We saw results of them fixing the process in 2016. It resulted in the best president since Reagan who also ran as a Republican.

  5. The process is not broken, but the politicians sure as hell are. Consider the clown show Dem debates. Are you kidding me? These imbeciles are running for what?

  6. How do you know that Trump didn’t win the popular vote? So many illegals, so many unqualified (by Constitution) voting. He received the lion’s share of Republican votes, and became their candidate.
    We are a Republic, anyway, not a Democracy. It’s the score on the board, not whether you gained more yards passing than the other team.
    Plenty of broad suppport for him, then and now.
    Might you mention that Bill Clinton, the only Democrat running, only received 43% of the votes as he won his first term as president? What broad support?
    If you want to talk about th primary process, why don’t you write about how Hillary shafted Bernie. And that’s even before you mention that Donna Brazile gave Hillary debate questions in secret before the debate.

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