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After Iowa, Here’s How to Fix the Broken Primary

The fact that the Iowa Caucus turned into an epic shit show is not a surprise, the surprise is that it took so long. The current Democratic Party process for selecting its presidential nominee is a Rube Goldberg contraption that came together through a series of historical accidents. To the extent that the party has implemented reforms since 1968, those reforms have been designed to solve problems that surfaced during the previous cycle, and have typically created a bunch of news one. It’s a complex and nuanced system that is ripe target for exploitation of bad actors surfing the inherent cynicism of the American people to sow dissent within the party

The most common criticism of the current nominating process is that it cuts against the party’s diversity and thus its strength. White and culturally conservative states are at the front of the line, while the last two Democratic nominees were an African American man and a woman. But that criticism is just the tip of the iceberg. As we saw in Iowa this week, the process is too complicated to survive the hot-takes and conspiracy theories of the Twitter-dominated media era. Once it became clear that there were some problems with the Iowa Democratic Party’s process, disinformation spread like wildfire. There were conspiracy theories alleging that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, was involved in the creation of the app that led to the problems, and that the party used it to rig the primary against Sanders. Others claimed that somehow Pete Buttigieg’s campaign had worked with a non-profit run by a campaign staffer’s wife to make an intentionally buggy app as part of a secret stop Sanders plot. Joe Biden’s campaign explicitly raised questions about the results, perhaps as a way to explain away a disappointing finish. These demonstrably false, patently absurd conspiracy theories were amplified by the president of the United States, United States Senators, New York Times columnists, the supporters of the various candidates, and trolls seeking to sow chaos. I even made a dumb joke on Twitter that had the unintended effect of  pushing the false rumor about Mook (I promptly deleted it). Responsible stakeholders had no chance to set the record straight because information on Twitter moves way too fast during pivotal news events.

This is almost certainly the end of the overly complex Iowa Caucus, but it’s not the end of confusing results. I heard several purported political experts on cable news complain that in several precincts, certain candidates received many more votes than others, but walked away with the same number of delegates. Guess what? That has nothing to do with the Caucus, the entire Democratic primary system is based on the proportional allocation of delegates. In Nevada in 2008, Hillary Clinton won more votes, but Obama had more delegates. 

This is the system we have for this election and the campaigns and party leaders need to work together to push back against the efforts of Trump and others create divisions in the party that they will exploit in the fall. Sometimes that means sacrificing appealing spin for the larger, long-term effort to defeat Trump. But it’s past time to begin thinking about what we can do differently in the future:

  • Get Rid of Caucuses: No one loves caucuses generally, and the Iowa Caucus specifically, more than those of us who worked for Barack Obama. Had he not won in Iowa in 2008, he wouldn’t have become president. It’s as simple as that. But as we saw last night, the process takes too long, is overly complex, makes it difficult for working class voters and people with family obligations to participate. The Democratic electoral formula depends on persuading non-voters to become voters and caucuses are a big obstacle to participation for the people who aren’t already obsessed with politics.

 

  • Move to Winner Take All Contests: Proportional allocation is overly confusing and complicated and can make people feel like their voting and volunteering isn’t worth that much. Many districts have an even number of delegates and in a two-person race, they are almost always split evenly no matter who gets more votes. The entire process would be simpler, shorter and less open to exploitation if Democrats adopted the principle that the person who received the most votes received all of a state’s delegates. 

 

  • Ranked-Choice Voting: One of the good parts of the Iowa Caucus process is that being a voter’s second choice is really important. This means more outreach and less negative campaigning. I went to a caucus location in Ankeny on Monday night and it was really encouraging to watch the supporters of viable candidates (Warren, Bernie, Kloubachar and Buttigieg) make civilized but impassioned appeals to the supporters of the non-viable candidates (Biden and Yang). A move to ranked-choice voting, where voters rank their preferences, and the field winnows until one candidate has a majority, would replicate this unifying dynamic in primary states and minimize divisions within the party.

 

  • Change the Calendar: Presuming we survive this election, it’s time to reorder the calendar. This is a really complicated endeavor. We certainly need more diverse states near the front. We also need states small enough to encourage grassroots campaigning and give longer-shot candidates an opportunity to compete against national front runners with big war chests. I am struck by the fact that the campaigns just hired hundreds of the best organizers in the party to spend a year knocking on doors, accumulating data, and building local political infrastructure only to have them all get on a plane and never come back. Iowa is currently a non-competitive general election state and all none of that work can be used to remove Trump from the White House. Kevin Sheeky, a Bloomberg advisor, suggested on a recent episode of David Plouffe’s podcast that the three closest states in the previous presidential general election go first in the next primary. Under that scenario, the order would have been Michigan, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. Something to think about.

Ultimately all of this is a problem to be solved after we beat Trump in November. A new system is for tomorrow, the problem of Trump and his minions using the complexity of our system to exploit divisions is happening right now. But there’s no reason we can’t start thinking about and planning for it now.