The presidential primary calendar stinks. Now’s the time to shake it up.
By Michelle Cottle
Don’t freak out, but Nevada’s Democrats are already looking ahead to the next presidential election — and, more specifically, how to pick their nominee.
Last Monday, a bill was introduced in the state Assembly that would replace the current caucus system with a primary. As conceived, the move threatens to throw the party’s national nominating calendar into conflict and chaos.
It’s about time.
Nevada’s nominating process has had a rocky run of late. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the caucuses, but complex delegate-selection rules led to chaos at the state party’s convention, when Bernie Sanders’ fans became convinced that the process had been “hijacked” for Clinton. (Intraparty death threats are rarely a good sign.) The 2020 cycle was less explosive but still bumpy. Sanders scored a clear win, but there were initially competing claims for second place, the reporting of results was delayed, and Pete Buttigieg’s campaign claimed “irregularities.”
Not all of this is poor Nevada’s fault. Caucuses are a convoluted, vaguely anti-democratic way to pick a nominee. The rules are mind-numbing and the process time-consuming, giving an unfair advantage to party activists and people with numerous hours to kill. If anything, Nevada’s 2020 headaches could have been far worse if the party hadn’t scrambled at the eleventh hour to shore up its systems in response to the epic failure of the Iowa caucuses.
For those who have already repressed the debacle, Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses suffered a meltdown last year. The system “crumbled under the weight of technology flops, lapses in planning, failed oversight by party officials, poor training and a breakdown in communication between paid party leaders and volunteers out in the field,” The New York Times found. The results were not reported for days and, even then, were a hot mess. More than 100 precincts reported results that were internally inconsistent, incomplete or flat-out impossible under the rules.
It’s not as if the caucus states weren’t aware of the potential for trouble. Post-2016, as part of a push to simplify and clarify the nominating process, the Democratic National Committee urged the state parties to shift to primaries. Most did. The few that refused were instructed to adopt measures to make voting more inclusive. Iowa and Nevada toyed with remote telephone voting, but those plans fell apart over security concerns.
Despite adopting changes, including setting up caucus sites in casinos to accommodate workers and providing for early voting, Nevada Democrats have now decided that “the only way we can bring more voices into the process is by moving to a primary,” the state party chair said in a statement.
This is the sensible — and democratic — thing to do. But there’s a hitch.
Nevada Democrats aren’t looking simply to shift to a primary system. They are looking to host the first primary election of the presidential cycle. “Nevada’s diverse population and firsthand experience in issues relating to climate change, public lands, immigration and health care provide a unique voice that deserves to be heard first,” said Jason Frierson, the Assembly speaker, in announcing the bill.
Nevada is a lovely, diverse state with much to recommend it. But its attempt to claim pole position in the presidential primaries will not be well received by New Hampshire, which has held that honor for more than a century. New Hampshire so values its first-primary status that state law requires that the state hold its vote at least seven days before any “similar election.” A caucus is considered different enough not to pose a conflict, but if Nevada tries easing toward a primary: Fight on. New Hampshire’s longtime secretary of state has already told the local media, in effect: Relax. I’ll handle it.
It’s hard to blame early states for clinging to their privilege. Leading the presidential calendar means they get lavished with time, attention and obscene amounts of money from the candidates, the parties and the legions of journalists who cover the circus. Their voters and their issues receive preferential treatment. Who knows how many Iowa diners would fail if not for all the candidates and journalists jockeying to hobnob with “real Americans”?
That said, oceans of words have been devoted to why Iowa and New Hampshire should not have a lock on early voting. Especially for Democrats, these lily-white states are hardly representative of the party’s electorate. This cycle, President Joe Biden’s abysmal showing in both Iowa and New Hampshire had many declaring his candidacy deader than disco.
After South Carolina Democrats, dominated by Black voters, saved Biden’s bacon, the calls to overhaul the nominating calendar grew even louder and more pointed. “A diverse state or states need to be first,” Tom Perez told The Times as he was wrapping up his tenure as head of the DNC last week. “The difference between going first and going third is really important.”
Yes it is.
There is, in fact, a strong argument to be made that no state — even a superdiverse one — should have a permanent claim on that privilege. Many worthy states would love to have their parochial concerns receive saturation coverage during an election. And the denizens of small towns in Iowa and New Hampshire are no more entitled to having candidates fawn all over them than those in North Carolina or Ohio or Maine. The current nominating scheme is not the only option. Plenty of alternatives have been floated, including a system of rotating regional primaries. It’s past time to give them a serious look.
Nevada Democrats are aiming to shake things up. The national party should seize the opportunity to shake even harder, reforming a system that’s increasingly out of touch with voters.