As primary season continues, troubling questions and palpable dismay linger on the minds of many voters. The same tired fights of 2016 are playing out yet again four years later, as Donald Trump’s approval rating creeps higher while the Democratic unity looks like a pipe dream. Defeating Trump was always going to require a once-in-a-generation campaign. Now, it’s beginning to feel like Trump could run away with this thing. What happened?
Think back to the summer of 2019. The field of 20-odd contenders was a rowdy and diverse lot, a true cross-section of the modern Democratic Party. Senators and House members, governors and mayors. Young and old, black and white and Asian and brown, gay and straight. They were, as DNC Chairman Tom Perez said, “the most diverse field in our nation’s history.”
But by the time of the first primary contest, the field had shrunk to a mostly old, mostly white, mostly wealthy crop of established candidates who — apart from Mayor Pete Buttigieg — could scarcely claim to represent something new. At the same time, two billionaires, Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg, had bought their way into the top tier of candidates by spending hundreds of millions of their private fortunes.
“They wanted a big, fluid, multicultural field — they didn’t get it,” says Jeff Roe, a Republican political consultant who ran Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. “They wanted a new generation of leadership — they didn’t get it. They didn’t get any of the things they wanted.”
And that was before the calamitous Iowa caucuses denied any of the candidates the springboard they’d hoped for, like the one that propelled Obama in 2008. Instead, the story out of Iowa was about how the Democrats — who hold themselves out as the defenders of safe and secure elections — bungled a caucus they had four years to prepare for and damaged the public’s trust in the outcome. Whatever the opposite of “hope and change” was, well, this was it.
The chaos of Iowa did, however, make the strongest case yet for why the Democratic Party’s primary process must be revamped from top to bottom. Here are four ideas.
Replace Iowa with Georgia
Why invest so much money and manpower in a small, overwhelmingly white state with little significance in the November general election? If Democrats want to build the party of the future, they should replace Iowa with Georgia. A growing and diversifying state with a healthy mix of urban and rural populations, Georgia is already seen as a state that could turn purple, thanks in large part to the voting-rights work led by Stacey Abrams. Want to accelerate Georgia’s leftward shift? Make Georgia the first primary state in 2024. Two-dozen presidential candidates building grassroots organizations and spending tens of millions of dollars on advertising will do wonders in Georgia.
Get rid of the debates
Let’s face it: Primary-season debates do more harm than good. Candidates don’t have enough time to adequately explain their positions on nuanced issues. News organizations that host the debates care more about conflict and ratings than informing the public. And in the case of the 2020 race, the DNC’s debate rules penalized grassroots candidates (like Andrew Yang) and non-East Coast candidates (like Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington and Steve Bullock of Montana) who didn’t have high name recognition. Save the debates until the general election. Stick with town halls or issue-focused forums. At least that way voters will learn something.
Reward states that make it easy to vote
Democrats should reshuffle the order of their primary states and reward those states that make it easy to vote. Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — three of the four opening contests in 2020 — all have some of the most restrictive voting-rights laws in the country. The Democratic Party must reward the states that use automatic or same-day registration, secure voting technology, early voting, and mail-in ballots.
Demand candidates take a ‘Ban the Big Money’ pledge
As long as Republicans have power, Congress won’t lift a finger to rein in the legalized bribery and corruption unleashed by decades of misguided legal decisions, including Citizens United. In the meantime, Democrats should demand that their primary candidates vow that they won’t take money from Super PACs, use wealthy bundlers, or accept corporate money. Such a pledge would build trust with voters, give upstart candidates a fair shot, and make the Democratic Party responsive to the working people it claims to represent.
Whoever the Democratic nominee is, the usual choice between “turning out the base” versus “winning over swing voters” is a false one. Trump’s re-election campaign is spending vast sums of money to not only mobilize those who voted for him last time but to also find and register millions of new voters. Democratic operatives say it will take a multiracial movement like the one that elected Obama in 2008 to inspire Democrats and independent voters alike. “There’s a lot of headroom both for Trump and for the Democratic nominee,” Ben Wikler, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, says of the 2020 race. “It’s going to be radically different” from 2016.
The point of a presidential primary is to pick a nominee and set up that candidate for success in the general election. This time around, it can feel as if the opposite has happened. Win or lose in November, a reckoning is in order.