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Reince Priebus Agrees With Jimmy Carter

[ Posted Tuesday, September 29th, 2015 – 16:52 UTC ]

I should start out by apologizing for the sensationalism of that title, but somehow I just couldn't resist. "Priebus Agrees With James Baker" didn't quite have the same punch, but I'm apologizing in advance for two reasons: I actually agree with the chairman of the Republican National Committee on this one; and because of that, the article's going to be supportive and not snarky, as the headline might imply.

I noticed the connection when reading an article on how Reince Priebus is contemplating a major shakeup of the presidential primary process. Most of the article focused on Priebus hinting at challenging the early primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada), and perhaps giving some other states the front position in line. But here's the part that leapt out at me:

"One of the things I would have been interested in doing is sort of like a rotating primary process, where you would divide the country into five quadrants and have a primary about once every two weeks. And then you could have about a 10-week primary process," Priebus said. "I've always been intrigued by that idea."

Several other plans have been floated in recent years, Priebus said, including a "random lottery" that would assign each of the 50 states with a number 1 through 5 and result in five primary dates with 10 states voting on each.

The reason this caught my eye was because this has long been an issue I've been interested in. In fact, I wrote about it the seventh time I ever blogged, back in July of 2006. This post was titled: "Take Jimmy Carter's Advice On The Primary Calendar." In it, I explained what Jimmy Carter and James Baker (it was a bipartisan commission) had proposed:

Jimmy Carter and James Baker's blue-ribbon Commission on Federal Election Reform proposed a much better idea of rotating regional primaries, which would add some fairness to the system. Keep New Hampshire and Iowa happy by allowing them to stay at the front (they suggest), but then split the rest of the country into four (unspecified) regions. Entire regions would vote on the same day, separated by a month or so from the other regions. The regional voting order would rotate, so (for instance) if the Northeast voted first in 2008, then they'd vote last in 2012 -- and maybe the West or the Southeast would vote first that year. This way every region gets a chance at being the one that actually picked the nominee, but only once every four election cycles (every 16 years).

Because this idea is bipartisan and makes oodles of common sense, it has been largely ignored by both parties. Which is a shame. Because effectively disenfranchising 46 states out of 50 is a bad thing. It's bad for politics, bad for voter turnout, bad for both political parties, and bad for the country as a whole.

[Editor's note: The original article had a link to the commission's actual report, but this link is so old it doesn't work anymore, sorry.]

Other than minor differences, this is precisely the idea Reince Priebus says he's thinking about. Priebus would have five regions instead of four, and smaller gaps between the dates, but in essence it's the same concept.

Good ideas are good ideas, no matter which side of the aisle supports them first. Which is why I would support Priebus if he actually did try to institute such a scheme. I would even support keeping the four early states the same, since the addition of South Carolina and Nevada has gone a long way towards giving minorities a bigger voice in the early process, and it has also achieved one of the main goals of the rotating primary plan: better geographic variety. We now have four early states: one from the Midwest, one from the Northeast, one from the South, and one from the West. That's a lot better than it used to be, no matter what demographic measuring stick you choose.

So go ahead and keep the first four states. By doing so, it avoids a huge and potentially nasty fight with Iowa and New Hampshire, whose citizens now see their early-voting status as some sort of divine right. To put this another way, they're going to fight hard to keep their preferred status, and so avoiding that spat might increase the chances of getting all the other states to get on board the new plan.

As I said, good ideas sometimes aren't partisan (at least not initially). I not only would support Priebus if he actually did try to enact this plan, I would also strongly urge the Democratic National Committee to mirror their efforts, and change the dates for the Democratic primaries at the same time and using some set of mutually-agreed-upon rules to do so. This seems to me to be the only way things could actually change -- if both parties got behind the idea.

The rotating regional primary idea might not solve all the problems of our primary process, I'm fully willing to admit. But it would bring some sense of fairness to the contest. Every four (or five) presidential election cycles, your state would be one of the first to vote -- meaning that the candidates would spend a lot of time and money there. States that are no more than an afterthought now (because the contest has already been largely decided by the time they vote) would have a chance to be as important to the winnowing process as the folks in New Hampshire and Iowa.

One region of the country is already moving towards holding a de facto regional primary. This election cycle we will see what some are already calling "S.E.C. Tuesday," when much of the South will all vote on the same day. We've had smaller versions of this in the past (including my favorite, when Maryland, D.C., and Virginia all voted together, which I still like to call "Crab Cake Tuesday"), meaning the idea has already been tested on a smaller scale.

Moving to an orderly process where the position of the regions rotates on a schedule will eliminate the mad stampede towards the front of the line that happens every four years, like clockwork. It would be a political science experiment on a grand scale, but one that I feel would have a pretty good chance of success.

As I've said, I have long been a fan of creative ideas to improve the primary process. The most interesting idea I've ever heard would be to rank all the states on their voter turnout numbers. The states with the highest voter turnout would vote first, and those with the lowest turnout would vote last. This would provide incentive to each state to improve their numbers. I've never heard the second idea Priebus proposed (a random lottery for position), but even that might be an improvement over the chaotic system we have now.

I think the regional primary system should be given a chance to work. I would support Priebus if he did make a push to create such a system, and I would also strongly urge the Democratic Party to match his effort. And I'll even promise, in the future, to call it "James Baker's idea" in any headlines about Priebus if he does go forward. Further cheap-joke headlines on my part would only detract from the effort.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “Reince Priebus Agrees With Jimmy Carter”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Good ideas are good ideas, no matter which side of the aisle supports them first.

    If only, CW.... If only.... :D

    The states with the highest voter turnout would vote first, and those with the lowest turnout would vote last. This would provide incentive to each state to improve their numbers.

    That is also an excellent idea... :D


  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    I've written before about the "best turnout goes first" rule. But I was too lazy too look up the cite. It is an intriguing idea, but I'm almost certain it wasn't original -- I probably read about it elsewhere...


  3. [3] 
    Mopshell wrote:

    Since we don't have primary voting at all, to me this is just another crazy American spectacle as our preferential voting system must seem to you.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:


    I am not allowed to vote in any primaries anyways, so any primary schedule means very little to me..

    Your comment indicates you are not in the US.. Where do you live, if you don't mind my asking??


  5. [5] 
    John From Censornati wrote:


    Your preferential voting system doesn't seem crazy at all. It would be a big improvement here. It didn't have anything to do with Abbott getting the boot though, did it?

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:


    What exactly is "preferential voting"??


  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    According to the National Journal, Priebus is looking to:

    1) cut­ the num­ber of de­bates,

    2) com­press­ the nom­in­at­ing sched­ule,


    3) in­tro­du­ce harsh pen­al­ties for can­did­ates and states that vi­ol­ate party rules.

    There was also mention of designating February as the "carve out month," which I interpret as winnowing the field to something like 8-10 candidates by March, but I may be wrong about this.

    If by cutting the number of debates means cutting the number of useless "debates" because there are too many candidates squeezed into not enough time, than I'm all for that. Compressing the schedule and enforcing the rules also seem pretty reasonable reforms to me.

    That said, if Priebus is willing to expand the number of regions from 5 (an awkward prime) to an initial 8, he could institute a genuine seeded bracket system that would be adequate for the 2016 field, from the establishment favorites, to the craziest crusaders to the vainest of vanity candidates. (Long time readers with good long term memories will note I've proposed this before).

    Seeding could incorporate poll numbers and other factors (government service, military or civil to name one other). Rounds last 1 week, with one two- person televised debate in each region, followed by state primaries in each region. The candidate garnering the most votes in the region advances to the next bracket, amalgamated from 8 (week one) to 4 (week two), to 2 , which amounts to a genuine National Primary for the Republican Party on week 3. Week 4 is a Republican Political Sabbath allowing viewers to be well rested for Basketball March Madness.

    The main advantage of the bracket primary system is that it enhances the debate process (genuine rebuttal and follow-up), preserves a useful degree of focused regional campaigning AND gets it all over in a mere 3 weeks! Seasoned politicians are favored, but a talented newcomer has chance to shine, while inept ones are scratched early on.

    The main disadvantage of the bracket primary system is that it formally turns the Nation Convention into a mere coronation. Which on second thought, could actually be considered an advantage.

  8. [8] 
    altohone wrote:

    Hi CW

    Whatever reforms are considered, the two party system should be up for debate as well.

    Haven't we reached the point where registered independents outnumber the D's and R's combined?


  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    Haven't we reached the point where registered independents outnumber the D's and R's combined?

    Probably.. But inertia is a powerful force...


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