The ridiculously stupid way we pick presidents

Tuesday evening, reports emerged that the Nevada Republican caucus was a mess.

And not just a mess, but an embarrassing mess. Voters not checked for identification, as they were supposed to be. Volunteers who were organizing the caucus and counting ballots openly wearing campaign gear for a certain candidate. Voters casting multiple ballots. Loose ballots, just lying around on a table. Caucus sites that were never set up, sending most people who wanted to caucus home without having voted.

Donald Trump supporters celebrate their candidate's victory in Tuesday's Republican caucuses in Nevada. Jim Young | Reuters

Donald Trump supporters celebrate their candidate’s victory in Tuesday’s Republican caucuses in Nevada. Jim Young | Reuters

None of this is terribly surprising from a state as perpetually incompetent in running elections as Nevada. But it highlights something far more sinister and widespread: the foolishly stupid way we pick our presidential candidates.

Most people don’t know this, but the way each party nominates their candidate is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first nationwide primary selection process was conducted by the Democrats in 1972. The Republicans didn’t have a nationwide primary election until 1980.

Prior to that time, both parties conducted a handful of primaries and caucuses across the country (usually about a dozen or so), which rarely made much of an impact. The party convention, with delegates hand-selected by the party leaders at individual state conventions was what truly mattered.

The evolution into the system that we have today is really due to the chaos experienced at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy emerged as the winner of the most primary states (six) and had the most votes. He went into the convention thinking that meant something. It didn’t.

The nomination went to incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had never entered a single primary.

The internal division between the party establishment and the hardcore activist wing of the party (sound familiar?) became bitter and violent, and it spilled into the streets. Crippled by a broken party, Humphrey lost the general election to Richard Nixon.

After this, the McGovern-Fraser Commission was established, to seek to find a way to avoid another disaster like 1968. The rule changes that the commission instituted drove most states into abandoning the elite-run state conventions in favor of primary elections. The nationwide primary system was born. Republicans followed suit.

However, the hangover from the old system, where a few states ran popular caucuses and primaries (Iowa and New Hampshire, for instance) early in the cycle remained.

They competed with each other for influence in the now nationwide nominating contest, and other states attempted to inflate their own importance by singling themselves out, which is what gave us the rather absurdly long, staggered primary election schedule we suffer through today.

But it gets worse. Consider the different standards all of these states operate under.

Fourteen of the states on the Republican primary schedule are caucuses. Caucuses give a major advantage to candidates who can organize a sophisticated field turnout operation. Why? Because no one goes to them, and any campaign that can bribe, cajole, harass or scare people into participating will end up winning.

Here in Maine, where we have a caucus, 6,266 Republicans caucused in 2012 and 5,333 caucused in 2008. There are currently 263,735 registered Republicans in this state.

That means that last cycle, 2.4 percent (I rounded up) of registered Republicans participated in the selection of their party’s nominee.

And the 2.4 percent who showed up in 2012 were treated to a rather famous disaster, which spawned accusations of vote rigging, delegate packing, and disenfranchisement. Just like Nevada. Just like a lot of caucus states.

The other 36 states operate with primaries. Yet, some are closed (only open to registered Republicans) and some are open (open to other voters).

Seventeen states award their delegates proportionally, based on how well each candidate does in the state. Twelve award delegates proportionally, but with half the delegates going to the winner. Tennessee does the same, but awards 66 percent to the winner. Minnesota gives 85 percent to the winner.

And 14 states give the winner all of the delegates.

On the Democratic side, you have all these same problems, but you also have the disgustingly undemocratic concept of superdelegates, which make up about 20 percent of the convention delegates. These are party elites who have a voice, untied to any election, in selecting the nominee.

This ridiculous system is symbolic, I think, of our broken political culture. Things are the way they are right now because, to be frank, they’ve been that way a long time, and no one has had the courage to try to break the system and start over.

And that is exactly what is needed here. A complete and total destruction of the current nominating system in favor of something with uniform participation rules, a truncated schedule, and universal delegate apportionment.

Does anyone really disagree with that?

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.