Novak & Rooney: There has to be a better way to conduct presidential primaries

Here we go again. The controversy over the Iowa caucus results – or lack thereof – shines a bright light on questions around how we select our presidential candidates.

The emphasis and power on small states such as Iowa and New Hampshire in narrowing the field is the political version of Bill Murray’s "Groundhog Day" – the same absurdity, over and over, again and again. There has to be a better, more inclusive way to select, or rather eliminate presidential candidates. Without considering our options, we risk hurting the very political party structure the primaries were meant to build.

This idea of Iowa and New Hampshire being first hasn’t been forever, but it has been a long-time tradition. The New Hampshire primary has been first since 1920. Iowa’s caucuses jumped ahead of that state’s contest in 1976. Since then, not an election cycle goes by without legitimate questions raised about the sway and influence these two states have on presidential campaigns. And not an election cycle ends without the concerns promptly getting swept under the rug and nothing new happening.


Supporters of the process say these early, small state contests are an opportunity for more candidates with less money and lower name recognition to make their case directly to voters. They say voters have more access to the candidates and there are more candidates from which to choose. They give smaller states a voice and represent the heart of democracy in action.

But do they, really? Despite the spotlight and boastful pride around its first-in-the-nation status, in 2016 turnout in Iowa was less than 16 percent.


The truth is, Mr. Smith doesn’t go to Washington anymore. Before even the first caucuses meet or the first vote is cast, the media have weighed in, Super PACs have weighed in, pollsters and samples of 500 people have weighed in. The two political parties and cable news channels have had to eliminate candidates from the debate stage, which has its own set of barriers with fundraising requirements and two-minute statements. And then there are the yet-to-be-fully understood social media and technology factors.

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In 2016, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that more than half of American voters believed that the system Americans use to pick their White House candidate was “rigged” and more than two-thirds wanted to see the process changed.

The political parties hold on to an old primary system in a new political paradigm. What they fail to see is that the system that once gave the bosses power and control is now limiting their political relevance.

In 2020, we suspect that sentiment hasn’t changed. Yet, the political parties hold on to an old primary system in a new political paradigm. What they fail to see is that the system that once gave the bosses power and control is now limiting their political relevance.

As former party chairmen, we still believe that parties need primaries to grow. Primaries ignite a firestorm of activism with candidates. The more competitive primaries are, the more opportunity parties have to get people involved, develop new relationships, and bring people into the process. But when every other state no longer matters after Super Tuesday, parties are losing the long-term building blocks they require. For parties to remain relevant, more primaries need to go on.

In this modern age, there must be a fairer, more inclusive way to elect a president. More voters should be assessing a candidate’s readiness for the general election. More states need their primaries to be relevant all of the time – not just by accident.

There have been many proposals to change the primary system over the years. All should be on the table and welcomed.

One option we like is a rotating regional primary, which would group states together and alternate which region goes first. Like basketball’s "March Madness," a couple of regional rounds would quickly but inclusively reveal which candidates have championship game potential.


Rotating which region starts would preclude any state's "favored" status and involve all states within a region, including more people and more diverse populations. This approach would better shine a light on each candidate's potential.

Americans love a good contest. It’s time to adjust the primary system so our best presidential players are on the court, making their best plays in order to win.

T.J. Rooney is a founding partner of the Rooney Novak Isenhour Group.