HBO’s John Oliver Shows Exactly Why the Primary, Caucus System Is ‘Broken’
In the middle of a bruising election year, when Donald Trump seems to set off a political hot button daily, John Oliver can be relied upon to fulfill a related obligation that’s crucial to healthy democracy. Call the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight our culture’s foremost pusher of political cold buttons.
On Sunday, the British satirist exposed the quirks and kinks of presidential primaries and caucuses. A.K.A., “the electoral foreplay we’ve been engaging in since February that will culminate in the mass balloon ejaculations of this summer’s conventions,” Oliver joked. He also called the process an “erratic clusterf— every four years” where “almost every part of this process is difficult to defend.”
It’s a complex balloting cycle that seems to violate every principle of proportional representation and is managing to infuriate and alienate voters across the country. To wit: Vermont senator Bernie Sanders claimed 56% of the primary vote in Wyoming’s caucus last month but somehow lost the delegate tally—7 to 11—to Hillary Clinton. And when Donald Trump beat Ted Cruz in Louisiana in March, the billionaire real-estate developer was chagrined to discover the Texas senator could still carry as many as 10 more delegates than the Donald did under the primary process.
“I end up winning Louisiana. And then when everything is done, I find out that I get less delegates than this guy that got his ass kicked, OK?” Trump said during a campaign speech in Albany, NY. “Give me a break!”
For a change, Oliver found himself in agreement with the Republican frontrunner’s typically crude assessment and took Trump’s frustration as a kind of challenge. “We thought we’d ask, why do the parties operate this way?” the comedian said. “Until 50 years ago, states didn’t have primaries. And candidates were chosen by party insiders at the convention.”
Oliver defined a caucus as “a process by which you have to turn up to a certain place by a certain time, like a school gymnasium by 7:00 pm, attend a party meeting that can take hours, and then vote, which can be prohibitive.” Exhibit A: In 2012, Republican participation in caucuses was reportedly just 3 percent. The real problem, Oliver explained, is the apparent disconnect between the popular vote and delegate loyalties which have a real potential of being at odds. “Remember, you’re not directly voting for a candidate,” he said. “You’re voting to help determine the delegates who will attend the national party convention and then decide a candidate on your behalf.”
Why caucuses are so confusing
A CNBC interview with Republican National Committee member Curly Haugland that was broadcast on Last Week Tonight served to illuminate how delegates can simply shrug off their constituents’ political will. “In previous years, we’ve used primaries to quietly give us some kind of indication of the preference of the population,” Haugland said. “But the delegates at the convention choose the nominee, not the voters in the primary.”
Oliver went on to cite a recent Politifact investigation of convention chaos at a Sanders rally in Nevada that concluded, “Caucuses … can be incredibly confusing, and the arcane party structures don’t reflect how most people assume presidential selection works.”
“That in itself is a huge problem,” said Oliver. “Any competition should have clear rules. You don’t get to the end of a football game and go, ‘OK, who found the most eggs?’”
System favors the political elites
As if such vote nullification under current rules weren’t enough, the comedian laid bare how each party has its own unique method of gaming the primary and caucus system to favor political elites.
For Democrats, it’s so-called “superdelegates”: unpledged delegates who represent 15 percent of overall convention votes and are comprised of elected officials, former presidents and assorted party bigwigs. They can vote for whoever they want regardless of who won in their state or district.
“OK, so the delegates are super in the way the kids on My Super Sweet 16 are super,” Oliver said. “They are party obsessed, widely resented and untethered from all responsibility.”
Republican delegates, meanwhile, are only required to reflect their state’s choice in the first round of convention voting. From there, they become unbound delegates and can vote for whoever they want.
“That makes no fucking sense!” Oliver exclaimed. “Listen, if Dancing With the Stars had a system where, instead of voting directly for Paige Van Zant or Ginger Zee you had to vote for Doug or Karen to vote on your behalf — neither of whom will tell you who they are voting for — there would be riots in the streets!”
This year, we got lucky
Oliver began winding down his argument by noting that this year—in what amounts to more of a coincidence than any legitimate reflection of political popularity—the two candidates with the most votes are Trump and Clinton — and they also have the most delegates.
Explaining that Clinton currently leads Sanders by about 3 million votes, the comedian couldn’t seem to resist ruffling the feathers of any BERNers in his viewing audience. “Sanders supporters will argue that doesn’t include all caucus votes,” said Oliver. “But when The Washington Post estimated the rest, they found that she would still lead by 2.9 million votes. Even if you multiply all those caucus votes by seven to account for lower turnout, even if you give Bernie a bonus of 10,000 votes in every state that’s voted so far, and even if you tack on an extra hundred thousand votes just for shits and giggles, she’s still comfortably ahead.”
He added: “And I know Bernie supporters — I can hear you typing right now, that I look like an angry toucan funded by Shillary. But that doesn’t make that any less true.”
Concluding America’s primary and caucus system “needs wholesale reform,” Oliver made a trenchant observation: “The problem is, once the system produces a winner, the conversation tends to move on…Nobody wants to change the weird rules if they win.”
His solution? Pick a date next year to write an email to the chair of each party to “remind them politely to fix this.” Oliver’s proposed date? Feb. 2—Groundhog Day. “It seems appropriate,” the comedian said. “Because unless someone fixes this, we are doomed to live through the same nightmare scenario over and over again until the end of [expletive] time!”
Watch the full segment below:
Chris Lee is a former staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He covers entertainment, culture and business in Los Angeles.