Or you could just let Pennsylvania go first….

I was having a discussion over dinner about the problems with current presidential primary process, particularly the scheduling of them – yeah, I know, it’s a controversial stance! Pretty much everybody you talk to has an idea for what could make the current scheduling better, and we were arguing the merits of various hypothetical plans when somebody observed that perhaps people with more expertise and who had actually analyzed the relevant data had looked at this question. So it was home to Wikipedia and their US Presidential Primary page, and the also good FairVote page on Presidential Primaries.
The major variations seem to involve either (1) group primaries starting with small states, and then working up to larger states towards the end of the process, (2) ordering the primaries to start with a random sampling of primaries but with structure imposed to start with “easy” primaries and work up to the larger, more expensive ones, (3) working through regions of the country in turn, or (4) pulling one state from each of a set of regions for each of a set of primary dates. FairVote has nice details on how each of these work with sample breakdowns/schedules.
The cynic in me thinks it likely, though, that any of these plans is going to lead towards a bias towards particular groups/regions and against others, and that saavy analysts will be able to work out which these are and the constituency with the best lobbying power is going to win (if anything ends up changing). To me, this calls out for a different plan (yep, despite what I said about listening to people who actually know what they are talking about, I’m going to throw in my ignorant two cents…) based on pure randomness. Let’s pick a set of primary dates, and then randomly order the states among those dates. In order to prevent a state from being consistently devalued by falling late in the process, if you are in the last quarter of the primaries in one cycle, you are guaranteed to be in the first half of the primaries in the next cycle.
Sure, in any given year, you could have a bad outcome – small states could get a disproportionate say, primaries could be located such that poorer candidates have a harder time competing, etc. But you would avoid systematic biasing and considering the long-range trends of presidential elections, these concerns ought to even out. Otherwise, the debate seems to focus on whether particular goals (giving larger, urban states more say, making campaigning easier on fringe candidates, etc.) actually is desirable or not. And as I like to remind my students when looking at various AI systems, you always want to ask yourself if your highly engineered system beats random chance….

5 thoughts on “Or you could just let Pennsylvania go first….

  1. Thanks for your post here, Amanda. The American Plan detailed on the FairVote site indeed does have this random feature, along with a progression of a relatively few number of contests to more contests — something to allow a dark horse to emerge if voters in the first states like that candidate. You can see more on these options at http://www.FixThePrimaries.com

  2. All on the same day does have the advantage of simplicity, but there are a lot of arguments that it is economically unfeasible to campaign in all states across the country simultaneously unless you already have strong backing, thus essentially pushing the question a primary is supposed to answer – which of the many possible candidates should receive broad support – onto less democratic processes before the vote. Perhaps with more and cheaper media we could return to that process, but I think you would still lose the tailored messages that come out of staggered primaries.
    American Plan was one of the plans I roughly summarized, and while it does have a randomness factor, it is not pure randomness, so I think there are still going to be implicit biases in there that some people may not agree with.

  3. I have to say I have always been in favor of a single national primary the first Tuesday in May, as mentioned by Neal.
    Though, I like Amanda’s random selection idea, too.
    I’m tired of the “usual suspect” states deciding who the candidates are.
    Under the current system, I can’t even get interested in following what is going on right now. All will be decided already by the time I get to cast my vote April 22. So, I’ll start paying attention after the small, unrepresentative part of the country decides on the two candidates.
    The candidates I’ve wanted have never been viable anymore by the time I’ve been able to vote in the primary. So what’s the use?

  4. I think the one argument for this process is that if you cannot be a “viable candidate” in a small state like Iowa or New Hampshire where essentially every voter will have a chance to see you speak in person if they would like and there is just an overload of information and focus on the primary, then you won’t be able to be a viable candidate on a national scale. Those states may not be 100% representative, but they represent a large enough portion of the country that if you cannot succeed *at* *all* there, you really aren’t going to be able to be president.
    And, I do think there is validity in the argument that the “smaller name” candidates will have a much harder time campaigning effectively across the entire country for a single day primary than they would with state-by-state primaries.

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