The 2020 Primary Has Started

The 2020 Primary Has Started
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Many readers may have rolled their eyes when reading that headline (one editor literally groaned when this story idea was pitched), but it’s true. Elites in both parties have kicked off the next primary process by looking at, and in some cases attempting to revise, rules for the 2020 nominating contest.

This rulemaking process can seem opaque. It involves a large number of state and national politicos making an even larger number of decisions -- but it has a powerful effect on the primary. So here is an outline of some of the most important choices that will be made – involving delegate allocation, insider control,  the calendar and voter access -- and how those choices could shape the next nomination contest.

Delegate Allocation: Sacrificing Democracy for Speed (or Not) 

Delegate allocation -- how the results of each state contest translates into delegate counts -- is one of the most important features of any modern primary. And, as the 2012 and 2016 primaries show, different choices on delegation allocation can lead to widely different results.

Republican leaders spent most of the 2012 primary biting their nails. Their preferred candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney,  polled behind longshot boom-and-bust candidates Herman Cain, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for much of the previous year. And during the actual primary contests, Romney had trouble putting away Gingrich and Rick Santorum -- both arguably weaker candidates.

The GOP elite sought to solve that perceived problem in 2016 by tilting the rules toward the front-runner. They set up a short proportionality window and then allowed states to hold winner-take-all contests. This created a front-runner-friendly environment where the top finisher would get a disproportionate share of the delegates, even if he or she won with only a plurality of support.

But the GOP elite wrongly assumed that a Romney-esque consensus candidate would wrap up the nomination quickly. Donald Trump -- who, at the time, was loathed or at best tolerated by many GOP leaders -- won a disproportionate share of the delegates with only a plurality of the vote. This let him build up a big delegate lead early, which helped him fight off his competitors and eventually lock up the nomination.

This illustrates the central tradeoff in delegate allocation – front-runner-friendly rules can end bruising primaries more quickly than proportional rules, but they increase the risk that a factional or controversial candidate will run the table.

GOP leaders who dislike Trump might be tempted to slow down this process and create rules that encourage (or even mandate) states to allocate their delegates proportionally. But this system has its own disadvantages -- just ask Hillary Clinton (or Romney in 2012) if she enjoys competing in a drawn-out primary against an unlikely opponent.

Insiders: How Much Power Should They Have?

Both Republicans and Democrats face questions regarding how much power party insiders should wield.

On the Democratic side, these questions revolve around  superdelegates who are able to support any candidate at the convention, regardless of their home state’s primary result. On the Republican side, the argument centers on delegate selection -- the long series of state-, county- and district-level caucuses and meetings that, in most states, choose the flesh-and-blood delegates to the convention.

Critics of the superdelegate system or the byzantine GOP delegate selection process typically argue that these processes are undemocratic. Superdelegates can vote for whomever they want, regardless of the popular vote, at the convention, and in most Republican contests the actual delegates’ names don’t appear on the primary ballot. Additionally, not all of the delegates are completely in touch with the party rank-and-file. Many state-level Republicans favored Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who proved to be a far-right factional candidate. And super-delegates are supporting Clinton at a much higher rate than primary voters have. So the critics make a good point -- there are undemocratic parts of both parties’ systems.

But there are some benefits to having more insider control.

On the Democratic side, the superdelegates can serve as cool-headed mediators in the event of an intense convention floor fight. For instance, if three candidates were to finish the primary season with 40 percent, 35 percent and 25 percent of the pledged delegates, respectively, the superdelegates could pick a consensus candidate and avert a drawn-out convention fight. On the Republican side, the delegate selection process usually rewards party faithful, letting GOP volunteers who spend their free time knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes and phone-banking for the party participate in a highly televised, national political process.

Regardless of whether the costs of including insiders outweigh the benefits, their influence might diminish in 2020. The Maine Democratic Party has already voted to allocate superdelegates proportionally in 2020, and Bernie Sanders hopes other states follow that example. Trump also expressed frustration with the GOP delegate selection process in April, and as the nominee he could try to exercise influence to change some of these rules.

The Calendar: Which States Vote When? Who Gets the Delegates? 

Almost every primary is heavily influenced by the calendar -- that is, which states vote when and how many delegates each state is allotted. And while individual states have a lot of control over when they hold their contests, they have less direct say regarding how many delegates each is assigned.

While there are a few party rules about the order of primary contests (e.g. Iowa goes first, New Hampshire is second), states are mostly responsible for figuring out when to hold their contests. They’ll be making those decisions over the course of the next few years, and the order could have a profound influence on the eventual result.

For example, imagine if the Texas and Florida Republican primaries were switched so that Florida voted on March 1 and Texas voted on March 15. Trump, who won the Sunshine State, might have pushed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio out of the race two weeks earlier than was the case. This would have given Cruz more time to attempt to unite the party around himself, and get a potentially larger haul from his home state (which would have been outside the proportionality window). Trump may have still won the nomination in that scenario, but even small switches like this can alter the course of a primary.

The Republican delegate apportionment system is a little complicated, but the basic idea is that each state gets 13 delegates, some extra delegates based on strength of the GOP in that state, plus three delegates per congressional district. That final part gave the handful of Republicans running in very blue states and districts more leverage than Republicans running in GOP-friendly areas.

These blue-state GOP voters played a large and unexpected role in the primary. Many analysts thought these voters were more moderate than their red-state counterparts and would support an establishment-friendly candidate (e.g. Jeb Bush, John Kasich or Rubio). Instead, many of them favored Trump. So it wouldn’t be surprising if some anti-Trump delegates attempted to change this rule and shift more power to red states (some of which voted for Trump, but some of which did not).

One possibility would be to make the system more like the Democrats’, where each state gets delegates basically in proportion to its overall population and how Democratic it voted in recent past elections. Congressional districts that lean further left also got more delegates. This system doesn’t do much to encourage primary candidates to do outreach in typically hostile areas, but it does give more partisan areas more influence.

Access and Type: Who Should Be Allowed to Vote?

Finally, primary results are heavily influenced by how voters are allowed to cast their ballots. In the Republican nominating contest, Trump did better in open primaries, where Independents and sometimes Democrats were allowed to vote for GOP candidates. And Clinton did better in closed primaries where only Democrats (and not Independents, who favored Sanders) were allowed to vote for the Democratic candidates.

This issue looks like it will be contentious on both sides. Sanders has called for all Democratic primaries to be open, arguing that Democrats should allow the growing number of Independents to participate in the party’s presidential primary process. Cruz, who will have hundreds of loyal delegates at the July convention, has expressed his desire to make all Republican primaries closed to only those registered with the GOP.

The contest type also influences turnout and the make-up of the electorate. Most states hold primaries, where voters typically go into a “booth” and make their choice as they would in a November election. But some are caucuses, which involve town-hall-style meetings. Caucuses tend to have much lower turnout because the process takes longer, and candidates with energetic, activist bases -- such as Sanders and Cruz -- tend to perform well there.

States will likely make decisions on contest type over the next few years. But those decisions will pre-shape the electorate -- and that in turn will shape the final outcome.

This article was updated at 3:34 p.m. on May 23 to clarify the state delegate apportionment system.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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