The primary election is the election

I’ve seen many people lamenting that the US has this two-party system, and since one of the parties is a garbage fire, we basically have the one Democratic candidate foisted upon us, regardless of whether we actually like them. And, well, yes. That’s what democracy is, the foisting of popular candidates upon people who don’t necessarily like them.

But if I may point out the obvious, we do in fact get a say in the Democratic candidate, during the primary election. Heck, we don’t even have to vote for a Democrat during the primaries, since one of the major candidates is still an independent. As far as my own vote is concerned, the primary election is the election, and the general election is a formality.

I think everyone knows this, so what I’m really advocating is a shift in thinking. The primaries, which occur between February and June 2020, are the time to pick your favorite candidate, and let your political ideals shine. The general election, in November 2020, is the time to put out the garbage fire.

Of course, thinking about it this way, there are certainly aspects of the Democratic primaries that are disappointingly undemocratic. In 2016 there was a lot of talk about superdelegates, but I don’t actually think that’s the worst problem. (Anyway, superdelegate rules have been reformed since then.)

The first problem, is caucuses. In some states (Iowa, Nevada, Maine, and Wyoming), they don’t really hold elections, they just hold caucuses. You have to actually show up somewhere at a private event to vote. This is inaccessible to a lot of people, and in practice is dominated by the party establishment.

The second problem, is that states have elections on different dates. In practice, this means that the early states get the most attention and weight, and later states are merely responding to the results of the earlier elections. In many cases, the election is essentially already decided before many states have the opportunity to vote at all. The early states also have a strong effect on which candidates are perceived to be competitive, and therefore receive campaign funding. California used to have a late primary, but for 2020 got moved up to Super Tuesday, March 3rd.

The third problem, is first-past-the-post voting. That is to say, each voter votes for a single candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. It’s one of the simplest voting systems, and one we take for granted. But it has issues. In particular, it lacks what political scientists call “independence of clones”. That means that if you clone one of the candidates, the clone can affect who wins.

In practice, in a first-past-the-post voting system, candidates who are politically similar to one another have to negotiate who drops out of the race. Candidates will keep on dropping out until only two competitive candidates remain. In the mean time, the voters who support candidates who are most politically similar, are the most likely to get snippy at one another. I’m guilty of getting snippy myself, but I hope readers don’t take that too seriously. In all seriousness, I currently prefer either Sanders or Warren over any of the other candidates.

So, it’s not the two-party system you have to blame for only having two choices, it’s the first-past-the-post voting system. And we have the primary/general election system to thank for the fact that we actually have three choices, not just two.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Another problem is the loooong buildup to the primary. By the time the primaries roll around to my state, they will probably be down to 2 or 3 candidates. At that point I’ll be getting involved, making donations, lobbying for my favorite anti-Biden candidate, etc. But right now, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for anybody when I know that most of them will get knocked out long before I can express my support.

    Also, I’ve got to say, even with the vast field of candidates out there, none of them are setting me on fire. I like Warren and Sanders’ policies, but sooo old. Harris hasn’t made any major missteps yet but has troubling allegations about her time as prosecutor, Inslee has the right focus but is very bland, Buttigieg and Beto are too inexperienced. Gillibrand just seems to be good at keeping a low profile.

    I know I will be voting for one of these people, but the field will have been seriously winnowed by then. About all I could do right now is send a check to somebody, and so far, none of them are getting me excited enough to want to do that.

  2. anat says

    Another problem is the 15% floor rule. If your favorite candidate gets less than 15% of the vote in your state or congressional district (not sure which rule applies where) your vote gets tossed out, delegates are only distributed among those that got 15% or more.

  3. anat says

    If they keep insisting on different states voting at different times they should at least rotate the states that vote early. The first 2 states are too white and too rural to say anything meaningful about the views of democrats in the country.

  4. bmiller says

    Sadly, though, that “garbage fire” has utterly consumed the vast majority of the United States. The General Election is critical, because we cannot assume that the Mango Menace will not be elected. Because even from my perch in the outer Bay Area, the True Trump Believers seem to be legion and unrepentant. I hate to think about the climate in my original home state (Indiana) or the religio-fascist South.

    But a good analysis otherwise!

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