The case for a national primary

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The event prompted a thesaurus’s load of invective. It was a “fiasco,” blared the headlines—a “debacle,” a “system-wide disaster.” The Democratic Party’s Iowa caucuses, held on Feb. 3—whose outcome was still unofficial, and unclear, a week later—was “a major-league failure,” conceded Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. 

That it was. Vote counts in dozens of precincts didn’t add up, and a party-commissioned app that was supposed to report results quickly and accurately did neither—leaving a vast chad of uncertainty to hang over what should have been a sacred civic process. Republicans, no surprise, seized on the moment to troll the opposition. But it wasn’t long ago that they, too, found themselves in the same muddle. In the GOP’s 2012 Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney was declared the winner—until some two weeks later, when Rick Santorum was. Odder still was who ended up receiving the bulk of Iowa’s delegates at the Republican convention that summer: third-place finisher Ron Paul. (Don’t ask.)

For this year’s snafu, it’s easy to blame, as Sen. Bernie Sanders did, the Iowa party bosses who “screwed it up badly.” But the true culprits aren’t a handful of local pols, or a poorly designed app, or even the state party’s Byzantine caucus rules. Rather, the fault lies with the current presidential nominating system itself—and with the counterintuitive, counterproductive, and counter-democratic tradition of beginning the process in Iowa, or in any other single state, for that matter.

Here’s a modest proposal: Have each major party switch to a one-day national primary.

The argument against such a change, as is so often the case in politics, centers on money: “You go to a national primary, and it’s all about money, right? It’s all about who can spend the most money advertising across the country at once,” says ­Caitlin Jewitt, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech. “You don’t have nearly as much chance of a Pete Buttigieg, for instance, emerging as a strong candidate under a national primary as you do under the sequential system that we have now,” she adds, referring to the former South Bend, Ind., mayor. It’s that famed small-town “retail politicking” of Iowa and New Hampshire, say boosters—months and months of diner pop-ins, meet-and-greets at the VFW, and backyard Q&As—that makes a Buttigieg-like rise possible.

What the mythology leaves out, of course, is that the young mayor was already on the cover of Time magazine, a prodigious fundraiser, a darling of late-night talk shows, and gaining in the national polls long before Iowa. The popular lore also ignores the flip side: Candidates with little national recognition rarely survive the quadrennial Hunger Games of Iowa and New Hampshire, no matter how much time they spend chatting in coffee shops. Witness the nearly two dozen elected officials and other prominent figures who have quit the race or faded into the background like showroom furniture.

What the mythology also leaves out is that money is already on the ballot everywhere. You may have noticed that our quaint rolling landscape of caucuses and primaries hasn’t kept three billionaires from entering the race.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg didn’t join the fray until November, but nonetheless spent a record $188 million in the last quarter of 2019. He continues to trail three other Democrats in national polls. Former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has spent some $200 million of his own money so far, and he’s a favorite of just 2% of voters nationally. Money, it would seem, is necessary, but insufficient. (President Trump, our third billionaire, has so far spent little of his own money, though his 2020 campaign has raised over $200 million.)

But money isn’t the only investment that candidates make. Even more precious is time. Consider former U.S. Congressman John Delaney, a respected centrist Democrat, who declared his candidacy in July 2017, long before any of his rivals—and spent most of the days since then in Iowa. After barnstorming each of the Hawkeye State’s 99 counties, holding 400 public events, and shaking some 24,000 hands, however, Delaney dropped out of the race—three days before a single vote was cast.

He was polling at close to 0% nationally, but perhaps his message might have resonated more with the rest of the country if he hadn’t sequestered himself in a single small state—particularly one that doesn’t quite reflect the demographic complexity of the nation.

Voters across America deserve their chance to winnow the field. And a pair of national nominating primaries, one each for Republicans and Democrats, offers the best chance of producing two nominees who can appeal to the broadest swath of the electorate come November—candidates who can connect with the fast-growing number of voters unaffiliated with either major party; those who can draw support from rural, urban, and suburban Americans; those who can stand up for collaboration and compromise without being cast out by their party as a pariah.

No wonder that 58% of Democratic voters, in a Monmouth University poll this January, said they’d rather have a single, one-day national primary than keep the nominating process as is. If the majority of Democrats aren’t thrilled with their leading candidate after Super Tuesday on March 3—when 16 contests are up for grabs—you can bet the call for a national primary will grow even louder.

A version of this article appears in the March 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Scrap the primaries. Here’s a better way.”

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