From the snows of New Hampshire to the sands of Las Vegas: Thoughts about the structure of the Democratic Primary so far
This is an experiment. So let me know what you think!
Welcome to the inaugural edition of my newsletter! I don’t yet know what this will be or even how long it’ll be, but I wanted place to collect and share my thoughts in a more coherent fashion.
Design and structure matter more than you think.
One thing I think about a lot is how seemingly small design choices and historical accidents can end up having such wildly disproportionate effects downstream. The 2000 Presidential election literally came down to a few hundred votes in Florida where a confusing ballot design made many Al Gore supporters vote for Pat Buchanan on accident—and thus, in a long chain of events, the poor schmuck designing ballots in a small Florida county triggered the eventual death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
The filibuster is another such bizarre accident of history—Vice President Aaron Burr (yes, that Aaron Burr) tried to clean up redundant Senate rules and accidentally created a de facto rule that Mitch McConnell would hundreds of years later turn into a 2/3 voting threshold for all Senate bills. Let this be a lesson to you, kiddos—you delete the wrong comma and you too could one day doom critical climate change legislation and induce horrifying wildfires in Australia!
So why am I talking about this?
Well, the Democratic Primaries so far have been a perfect case study in weird design choices having gigantic downstream effects. Let’s take a look at some of the ways…
1) Iowa and New Hampshire come first: Yes, I know this horse has been beaten to death, but I think folks don’t realize just how utterly arbitrary it is that these two very non-representative states have such massive influence on the nomination process. As you’ve probably observed by now, Iowa’s caucus process is ridiculously complicated and long—what you may not know is that it is because this process is so complicated and long that Iowa comes first! When the Party adopted a new primary system following the turmoil of the 1968 Democratic Convention, Iowa decided to start early so it would have time to go through its process—and no one thought much of it, because the eventual outcome of the primary process had little bearing on the eventual nominee prior to that. However, Jimmy Carter’s campaign recognized the unique media opportunity being the winner of the first caucus became, flooded the zone in Iowa, got glowing press coverage out of it, and swept the party—and thus, without any sort of coherent or collective discussion, the Democratic Party handed enormous, enormous, enormous power to a little over a 100,000 people whose only qualification is being willing to live in the state of Iowa.
This has real, concrete effects on what kind of candidates do well, and in turn, what policy decisions the most powerful person in the world makes. The core coalition of Pete Buttigieg—college educated, affluent white liberals—is strongly overrepresented in Iowa, while Joe Biden’s core coalition—non-college educated white voters and older black voters—is strongly underrepresented. A Democratic Primary that began in South Carolina could very well have resulted in the narrative of a strong Joe Biden win, followed by some combination of Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders. Instead, coming out of Iowa the narrative was an ascendant Buttigieg tied with Sanders and followed by Warren and Klobuchar, all leaving Joe in the dust.
The weirdest part of this is that this has real policy consequences—a Biden Presidency would be significantly more moderate on, say, bankruptcy law, than a Buttigieg Presidency, and a Harris Presidency might have differed from a Warren Presidency on foreign policy in ways we can’t even predict. While I have my biases, obviously, I’m not even necessarily arguing that one of these outcomes is better than the other, but that it is profoundly stupid that the arbitrarily selected order of elections determined by what was convenient logistically in 1968 has global consequences for billions of lives.
2) The qualification process for the Democratic debates: The DNC had a difficult problem to resolve in this election—given a party riven by tensions from the 2016 primary and an enormous field of candidates, it had to figure out a fair way to determine who could be on the debate stage. While there were some red flags they should’ve seen coming—Donald Trump’s ability to hijack the debates should’ve been a warning sign to the DNC—I don’t think it’s reasonable to say they should’ve fully anticipated just how consequential their decisions around qualification rules would become.
By requiring candidates to hit certain polling criteria and donation amounts, they triggered a whole strange cascade of consequences, including:
a) Candidates investing enormous resources into super inefficient fundraising operations so they could hit the qualification criteria—at some point, they were spending $40 on digital ads per each dollar they raised. For smaller campaigns without a lot of resources or a pre-existing big national list, this prevented them from being able to invest resources into actually communicating with voters. This has real consequences, because it tends to elevate three kinds of campaigns: well known national figures (Bernie, Biden), candidates who catch fire with a niche but fervent fanbase (Yang), or those with a lot of money to burn (Steyer.)
In the past, primaries tended to be an opportunity for regionally known candidates with respected credentials (Governors, Senators) to audition on a national stage, but this way of organizing debates made the path forward for them much, much harder.
You know who would have struggled to qualify under these rules? Barack Obama.
b) An enormous incentive to start very early: In order to build up the sheer volume of donors necessary to qualify for debates (and get enough poll mentions) candidates needed time—and thus somewhat later entrants, who in the past could’ve relied on their status in national circles to get into debates despite a later entry, like Deval Patrick or Steve Bullock, had little time to build the runway to get on stage. You know who understood the importance of getting in early and raising small donations early?
Pete Buttigieg, the 38 year old small town Mayor currently crushing a former Vice President.
And last, and perhaps most importantly:
c) Debate qualification mattered A LOT: This is something that I have less tangible evidence for, but the general consensus amongst political observers seems to be that the Democratic electorate treated debate qualification this year as a critical indicator of viability far more than ever before. Candidates who didn’t make it onto the debate stage saw their polling, fundraising, and media coverage just plummet. Anecdotally, people I know who work on campaigns that fell off the debate stage told me that voters consistently told them they thought this meant that the candidates had dropped out of the race.
Essentially, the DNC had created a set of rules that inadvertently made it the arbiter of who was still in contention in the primary and who wasn’t—accidentally giving itself enormous power. (More conspiratorial minded folks might say this was exactly what they intended, but given the sheer groaning I’ve seen from folks who work there and the actual candidates this set up has favored—I seriously doubt the DNC wanted Andrew Yang in the debates over Cory Booker—I’m inclined to see this as incompetence rather than malice.)
The scary question this poses, then, is this—if any rules we craft will have huge consequences on the primary, and in turn, what rules do we craft and to what end do we craft them?
So…that’s the first edition, and hopefully not the last! Please reply and tell me what you think, follow me on Twitter @armanddoma for more thoughts, and please, please, share this with your friends!