Explainer

The Presidential Primary Problem, Explained

A deep dive into the issues with the presidential primary system.
Carlo Macomber
Research Assistant
January 12, 2024
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Introduction

Over the past few years, Unite America has defined the “Primary Problem” at the congressional level. Because of gerrymandering and the geographic self-sorting of the electorate, the vast majority (83%) of U.S. House seats are “safe” for one party or the other in the general election. Therefore, the representatives of these districts are effectively chosen in low-turnout partisan primary elections. 

That’s how we end up with this shocking stat: In 2022, just 8% of the U.S. voting age population effectively elected 83% of the U.S. House in partisan primaries.

The Primary Problem is not unique to congressional or state contests. It also impacts presidential elections. While presidential general elections tend to be fiercely competitive, the presidential primary process nevertheless determines which two candidates represent the major parties and are the most viable options for voters. 

Most people know in their gut that the presidential primary process is rife with problems. Too often, once the general election rolls around, many voters are dissatisfied with their choices and resign themselves to voting for “the lesser of two evils.” In recent presidential elections, this phenomenon has become even more pernicious. For example, the final Gallup poll taken prior to the 2016 general election found that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had the highest and second-highest unfavorability ratings ever among presidential candidates.

The structure of and rules governing the presidential primary system play an outsized role in determining who wins the major party nominations. The timing of state nomination contests, the rules that determine who is eligible to participate in presidential primaries and caucuses, and the parties’ systems of delegate allocation can all distort the will of the voters and result in unrepresentative candidates appearing on the November ballot. (See “The Presidential Primary System, Explained” for a description of how the process works.)

The remainder of this explainer further defines the “Presidential Primary Problem” before briefly introducing solutions to the most egregious problems. (For a more in-depth look at this topic, you can also reference this report.) 

Exclusionary Rules

Nearly half of states (22) hold closed presidential primaries or caucuses. In those states, there are over 23 million registered independents (and another 4 million minor party voters) who lack a legal right to participate in presidential nominating contests; their right to vote is dependent on the whims of self-interested political parties. In 2020, the Democratic Party in eight of these states allowed independents to vote in their primaries, but no state Republican parties did so. In 2024, there’s no guarantee independents’ voices will be heard.

In addition, registered partisans in a total of 35 states can only vote in their party’s presidential primary or caucus. That includes the 22 closed primary states, plus the 13 semi-open primary states. Even if one party’s nomination is effectively predetermined (such as when an incumbent president is running for reelection), voters of that party cannot crossover and let their voice be heard in the other party’s primary. While this may initially seem reasonable, it is an unnecessary provision that silences the voices of voters with diverse views that may not fit perfectly within the current system. For example, imagine a Republican voter who lived in one of these 35 states in 2020 and who was opposed to Donald Trump’s reelection. Exclusionary participation rules prevented this voter from having any say in who would be Trump’s main opponent in the general election.

Caucuses also exclude certain voters from the nomination process by drastically increasing the burden of participating. An ideal of any democracy should be that voting is accessible, and secure. Caucuses fail this test. They require voters to show up to a specific location for a time-intensive process on a weeknight — effectively disenfranchising voters who are unable to attend (for example, working class voters or parents). Some caucuses also lack a secret ballot, as voters literally “vote with their feet” by gathering together in a room with supporters of the same candidate. This disenfranchises voters who might be unwilling to participate in such a public process. For these reasons and more, turnout at caucuses is usually significantly lower and even more unrepresentative than it is in primaries. During the 2016 presidential nomination season, the last in which both major party nominations were competitive, turnout in caucus states averaged 9.9% compared to 32.4% in states with primaries. 

In sum, the exclusionary participation rules of presidential nominating contests help create a primary electorate that is unrepresentative of the national electorate as a whole. Primary voters tend to hold views that are farther to the left or the right of the broader electorate, which incentivizes the major party candidates to move away from the center in order to appeal to their primary electorates. This makes it difficult for the nominees to cater to the full national electorate in the general election.

Wasted Votes

The current presidential primary system also leads to many “wasted votes” — votes cast for candidates who have dropped out of the race but still appear on the ballot. Votes are also effectively wasted in proportional systems when voters cast votes for candidates who do not meet the minimum threshold to receive delegates (see our previous explainer for more detail). In the 2020 Democratic primaries and caucuses, over 3 million votes were wasted on candidates who had already dropped out of the race or did not reach the 15% threshold to win delegates.

To be clear, voters are not to blame when they cast votes for candidates who have already dropped out. Frequently, at the time that they vote, the candidates they support are still in the race. Because of both the primary calendar and early voting, informed voters may cast a vote for their favorite candidate ahead of their state’s primary day, only for that candidate to withdraw before the state’s primary. There is no mechanism for voters to support another candidate if they accidentally end up “wasting” it, as they are not allowed to indicate additional preferences or backup choices.

The problem is not with early voting or voting by mail, however. Both reforms enfranchise voters and increase turnout in typical elections that are held on a single day. Rather, the problem is with a system that only allows voters to express one preference among a large field of candidates despite the fact that the more than 50 state and territorial contests are held over nearly five months.  

Voters are also not at fault when they cast votes in a proportional primary or caucus for candidates who do not meet the minimum threshold to earn delegates. The threshold is set by the parties. (Refer to our previous explainer for specifics on the thresholds.) Across the board, the threshold is high enough that many candidates running in a large field will not reach it. Since the delegate allocation method in the proportional system discards votes for candidates below the threshold, all votes for these candidates are effectively wasted. The voters who supported these candidates simply cast a ballot for their preferred candidate (just like all other voters), but because the system sets an arbitrarily high threshold, they get no voice in the final allocation of delegates among the candidates who did reach the threshold.

Once again, some voters’ voices are being excluded from the process because of the current rules of the presidential primary process. As these problems compound on one another, it becomes increasingly clear why the current system produces nominees who are unrepresentative of the electorate.

Disproportionate Delegate Allocation

Not only do the delegate allocation rules lead to wasted votes, but they also further distort outcomes by disproportionately allocating delegates to leading candidates (even in the supposed proportional system). This creates disparities between voters’ preferences and the ultimate outcome. To start, consider how delegate allocation can distort outcomes under the “proportional” system used in all Democratic primaries and caucuses and a handful of Republican contests.

Proportional System

Because all votes cast for candidates under the threshold are discarded, the candidates who did meet the threshold win a larger share of delegates than their vote share would indicate. A good example of this phenomenon occurred during Vermont’s 2020 Democratic presidential primary. That year, Vermont had 16 delegates that were pledged to candidates based on the results of its primary, and because the state only has one congressional seat, all delegates were allocated according to the statewide vote.

Sen. Bernie Sanders won the primary in his home state with 50.7% of the vote. Given that delegate allocation is meant to be proportional, it may seem intuitive that Sanders should receive eight (half) of the state’s delegates. However, only one other candidate reached the 15% threshold — Joe Biden at 22%. All other candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 12.6% and Michael Bloomberg at 9.4%, were below the threshold. As a result, just over 27% of all votes in the primary were discarded and not included in the delegate allocation process. In effect, they were never cast at all. Because Sanders won nearly 70% of the votes cast for the two candidates who met the threshold, he received nearly 70% of all delegates (11 of 16) despite winning just 50% of votes cast for all candidates. Biden received just over 30% of all delegates despite winning just 22% of the total vote.

This allocation process plays out state after state on the Democratic side, and ultimately results in the candidates who initially start out at the top racking up disproportionate shares of delegates. This further reinforces their position at the top of the pack, and, in many cases, results in the contest being effectively over shortly after it has begun — and well before the majority of states and millions of voters have had a say at all.

Winner-Take-All System

However, the problem of disproportionate delegate allocation is far from a Democratic Party problem alone. The Republicans have a serious problem of their own, which results from the party’s reliance on plurality elections and winner-take-all (and winner-take-most) rules.

As noted in “The Presidential Primary System, Explained,” nearly 75% of Republican delegates in 2024 will be allocated based on winner-take-all or winner-take-most rules. As a reminder, under winner-take-all, the candidate who receives a plurality of votes statewide wins all of that state’s delegates, including its congressional district delegates. In a winner-take-most system, the statewide plurality winner wins all of the statewide delegates, while the plurality winner in each individual congressional district wins all of the delegates from that district. Under both systems, statewide winners are heavily rewarded.

Any system that rewards one candidate all or most of a state’s delegates is not going to allocate delegates in a proportional manner. In fact, the winner-take-all and winner-take-most systems are not intended to be proportional. While proportional v. winner-take-all election systems is a separate debate, the main problem with the current winner-take-all/most systems is that they do not require a candidate to earn majority support to win. This increases the risk that the winning candidate does not actually reflect the will of a majority of voters in the state.

Winner-take-all/most rules also tend to favor candidates who can earn the support of a small but engaged group of voters, especially a group that proves to be a plurality of all primary voters. In other words, these rules favor a candidate like Donald Trump. In 2016, Trump racked up large numbers of delegates with plurality support in several states, including all of the delegates from Florida (where he won 46% of the vote), Arizona (46%), and South Carolina (32%). He also won nearly 80% of Illinois’ delegates despite winning just 39% of the vote and over 70% of Missouri’s delegates with just 41% of voters backing him statewide.

While this cannot be known for sure, it is possible that a majority of Republican primary voters in 2016 would have coalesced around a single non-Trump candidate had the field of candidates not been so large. However, the current system does not even allow for that possibility to come to fruition.

Solutions

As described, there are many problems with the presidential primary system that can lead to unrepresentative major party candidates disliked by a majority of American voters. However, there are a set of reforms that would help solve the current system’s largest problems, and keep the general structure of the process in place.

Open Primaries to All Voters and Eliminate Caucuses

The first two solutions are simple and straightforward. No voter, regardless of party affiliation, should be barred from participating in taxpayer-funded elections, which the vast majority of presidential nominating contests are. The only way to ensure that this is the case is to open all presidential primaries to all voters by allowing them to choose which party’s presidential primary they would like to participate in.

This is already the case in 15 states. And in another 13, all voters are at least eligible to participate in one party’s contest. However, given the nature of presidential elections, in which one party or the other frequently lacks a competitive nomination process because the incumbent president is running for reelection, it is especially important that all voters have the option to participate in either party’s primary in order to have their voice heard.

Second, no voter should have to participate in a potentially multi-hour caucus process in order to participate in our democracy. They also shouldn’t have to make their preferences public knowledge to all those in attendance. The only way to ensure this is the case is to end the outdated practice of presidential caucuses. Luckily, the trend in recent years is headed in that direction. For instance, 11 states on the Democratic side that held caucuses in 2016 switched to primaries in 2020 — leaving just three remaining caucus states for Democrats. On the Republican side, five states switched from caucuses to primaries in 2020, with seven caucus states remaining for 2024.

Instant Runoff Voting

In addition, in order to address the problems of wasted votes and disproportionate delegate allocation, all states should adopt instant runoffs (often using ranked choice voting) in their presidential primaries. In instant runoff elections, voters rank as many candidates on the ballot as they wish. The tabulation process would then differ depending on if a state holds a winner-take-all, winner-take-most, or proportional primary.

  • In a winner-take-all primary, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes would be eliminated, and all of their supporters’ votes would be transferred to the candidates ranked second on their ballots. This process would repeat with last place candidates being eliminated until one candidate has a majority of the vote. This candidate would then receive all of the state’s delegates.
  • In a winner-take-most primary, the process would play out the same way as above, except that it would be repeated in each congressional district in order to ensure the winner of each district also has majority support from the district’s voters.
  • In a proportional primary, if all candidates earn at least 15% of first-choice votes (or whatever the threshold is), no additional tabulations would be necessary. But, in the likely case that some candidates have not met the threshold, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes would be eliminated, and their votes would be transferred as described above. This process would repeat until all remaining candidates have reached the threshold required to win delegates. This process would also repeat in each congressional district, as well, since statewide and congressional district delegates are always awarded separately under the proportional primary system.

The use of instant runoffs in presidential primaries, whether they be proportional or winner-take-all or most, would help solve several of the problems outlined earlier in this explainer.

  • Fewer wasted votes. Since voters are allowed to rank additional preferences beyond their first choice, it is far less likely that they will waste their vote on a candidate who has dropped (or will drop) out of the race. If a voter’s first choice is no longer in the race by the time the primary is held, their vote will simply count for their second choice (or the highest ranked candidate on their ballot who is still in the race). This will drastically reduce the number of wasted votes.
  • A more representative delegate allocation. By allowing voters to rank multiple candidates, voters who support candidates in a proportional primary who fall below the delegate threshold can have their votes transferred to their second or third preferences (who may have already reached the delegate threshold). This allows these voters’ voices to be heard and counted in the allocation process. Further, transferring votes until all candidates have either been eliminated or met the delegate threshold ensures that candidates receive a share of delegates that actually aligns with their final vote share. In a winner-take-all/most primary, instant runoffs ensure the winning candidate earns majority support. If a non-proportional system is going to be used, the winning candidate should at least have support from a majority of all voters before claiming all or most of a state’s delegates.

Instant runoffs in presidential primaries is not just a theoretical concept — it has already been tested by several states. In 2020, four states, Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming, used instant runoffs for all voters in their Democratic primaries or caucuses, while Nevada allowed early voters to rank the candidates in their Democratic caucus. Across the board, these states saw notable increases in turnout over past presidential cycles.

While it’s hard to disentangle a particular reform’s influence on turnout, Alaska’s participation nearly doubled compared to 2016, and Wyoming’s more than doubled, Nevada’s early voters alone nearly matched 2016 turnout, and Kansas and Hawaii set state participation records. These states also had far fewer wasted votes, as voters were allowed to express all of their preferences.

Further, the four states that used instant runoffs for all voters allocated their delegates in close proportion to the candidates’ vote shares. It also ensured that very few votes were discarded and excluded from the delegate allocation process because the vast majority of voters ranked a candidate who met the delegate threshold somewhere on their ballot.

Conclusion

The current presidential primary system is rife with structural problems that contribute to the nomination of unrepresentative major party candidates. At nearly every step of the process, certain voters are either outright excluded or have their voices silenced by rules that are set by both states and parties. In some ways, the system discourages participation, and in others it quite literally ignores the opinions of certain voters, whether due to their party affiliation or who they consider their first choice candidate. It should come as no surprise that a system that is not set up to be representative produces unrepresentative candidates frequently disliked by the broader electorate.

Fortunately, there are simple reforms that can be implemented to greatly improve the process. Presidential primaries should be open to all voters, regardless of their party affiliation, and all states should move past the archaic and time-consuming practice of in-person caucuses. In order to reduce wasted votes and increase the representativeness of the delegate allocation process, all states should implement instant runoffs. Five states did so in 2020, which proved that the system can be a successful reform to presidential primaries.

As messy and complicated as the presidential primary system is, it is just as challenging to uproot it entirely. Given this, the reforms described here are the most viable and most impactful that could be implemented in the short term, while maintaining the current structure of the process. Americans who are upset with their options should look to the system that creates these outcomes, and pursue reform solutions in the name of a more participatory and representative presidential nominating process.

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