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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

When a party cancels its primaries

Mark Sanford (photo by Gage Skidmore)

The Republican parties of Kansas, South Carolina, and Nevada have officially canceled their presidential primaries for 2020, and the Arizona GOP may shortly do the same. This raises a number of important questions, so I'm going to try to answer them here as best as I can.

How unusual is this?

Good question. Canceling a primary of the president's own party during his reelection year isn't unheard of -- South Carolina has done this several times before, and some ten state GOPs canceled their 2004 primaries when George W. Bush was running for reelection unopposed. What's different here is that President Trump already has several high quality challengers in the field. Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford have already announced their candidacies. It's one thing to cancel a non-competitive primary because it would essentially just be a coronation, but to cancel one while there are prominent candidates already running is a rare power play.

Wait, the South Carolina Republican Party canceled its primary in order to help President Trump, even though its own former governor is running for president? Whoa.


Can they do that?

Yes. It's important to remember what primaries are -- they are just one possible way to pick a party nominee. Parties have developed a variety of ways to pick nominees, including caucuses, conventions, or a small number of party leaders simply designating someone as the nominee, what we usually call "bossism." What these state parties are doing right now is bossism.

Joe Walsh has said, "It’s something a mob boss would do." Okay, but you don't need to go that far. It's something a party boss would do. Although I don't recall Mayor Daley ever pushing to cancel a scheduled presidential primary while there were multiple candidates in the field.

Should they do that?

That's a very different question. Let's think about this for a second. Primaries are the most common way for state parties to pick nominees for the presidency and other offices. That doesn't mean they're the best way. Primary voters are not obviously better than party leaders at picking candidates who can represent different factions within the party well and still be competitive in a general election. Sometimes they're worse. A fair amount of the time they end up picking candidates that party elites like anyway. But it's quite possible party leaders would pick better nominees on their own. They picked Lincoln and FDR, after all. But they also picked Harding and Nixon.

But aren't there consequences for a party just canceling primaries?

Possibly. One trend we see over time is the increasing "democratization" of party decisions. That is, party decisions are increasingly made by party members rather than leaders (even if leaders are highly influential in those processes). Rank-and-file party members come to expect that they are the ones who properly make decisions over party nominations, and that having the party take that power away from them makes the party's decisions illegitimate. The belief that party leaders (including superdelegates) had anointed Hillary Clinton in 2016 was the central complaint of supporters of Bernie Sanders, who called her nomination corrupt and illegitimate. The Democrats have bent over backwards to appear to be favoring no candidate in this cycle as a result. It is very hard to move nominations back in the more elite-controlled direction, at least overtly. It risks undermining faith in the nomination, which can cause a party to splinter. It's dangerous.

If it's dangerous, why would Republicans do it?

They're trying to protect Donald Trump's renomination. Incumbent presidents, even unpopular ones, almost never lose renomination, but strong primary challenges make them look weak for the general election, and they're trying to prevent that. Also, Trump makes no secret of the fact that loyalty to him is the quality he looks for most in others. The examples of these four state parties actively protecting him by canceling their primaries will put more pressure on other state party leaders to do the same. And we know Republican leaders are not eager to anger Trump or his base of supporters.

You mentioned the Sanders/Clinton race before. But would this create as much of an illegitimacy problem for Republicans as it would for Democrats?

We'll see. But there may be important differences between the parties here. The procedural legitimacy of winning the nomination through primaries might just matter more to Democrats than it does to Republicans. Also, the Republican candidate who would complain the most about this sort of thing happens to be the one in the White House right now benefitting from it.

More generally, people tend to be pretty content with procedures, no matter what they are, if they produce the outcomes they like. Trump is overwhelmingly popular among the people who would be voting in Republican primaries next year. If he's still that way come next winter, most probably won't mind that they're getting the nominee they wanted anyway. Should his star fade somewhat thanks to a cooling economy, those Republicans might find themselves annoyed that their Democratic neighbors get a choice for the presidency while they don't.

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