Let’s make presidential politics fun again by embracing a primary system that actually produces viable and popular candidates, straight out of the wild world of college football.
Another Election Day has come and gone. Depending on where you live and which political party you support, you’re either happy or sad. Me, I’m a little let down. Election Day 2017 was not nearly as entertaining as Election Day 2016, when it seemed like every pundit on TV and Twitter was losing their minds at the same time.
Partially lost in the blinding light of Trump’s shocking 2016 victory was the revelation that perhaps our presidential primary system needed reformation. The initial Republican field of candidates was so large that those who opposed Trump could not unite around a possible alternative quickly enough to prevent his rise. Meanwhile, the Democratic primary system was likely gamed by their national committee to favor their preferred candidate. To make matters worse, major party candidates dominated the airwaves, leaving third party options uncovered.
In short, the primaries failed to produce widely appealing presidential candidates, leaving many Americans to pick between the lesser of two evils. The primary system itself is confusing to the average American who doesn’t know what superdelegates are, or why Iowa always goes first, or why primaries are spread out and clumped so oddly.
What if there was a way to determine the presidential candidate Americans wanted most, while making it entertaining and understandable to the average voter, engaging them more in the political process? I think there is, but to explain it I need to take what may seem like a tangent.
Election Day falls every year in early November, the month when college football competition heats up. I love college football. It’s steeped in tradition and pageantry that goes back over a century. You root for the place where you made friends, learned, and lived for four or more years – or for the program that’s closest to home or part of your family. The games themselves boast exciting and varied play, with upsets nearly every Saturday and new stars made every year. Its most recent innovation, the College Football Playoff, matches the four best teams in the nation against each other in three blockbuster games to crown a national champion.
Well, my brain sometimes works in weird ways. I started thinking about how a presidential primary system might look if it were based on college football. The more I pondered, the more I realized that such a system would address many of the current system’s glaring problems.
To start, let’s draw parallels between political parties and college football conferences, between candidates and teams, and between primaries and football games. To complete the basic structure, we simply change certain elements of the existing primary system to look more like the college football season.
Imagine a slate of weekly one-on-one matchups between individual candidates in national primaries, where voters can vote in as many matchups as they want, and the winner of each contest is determined by electoral vote. This “primary season” would go on for thirteen weeks, with every candidate competing in twelve primary contests with one “bye week.”
Now for the details. First off, we’re going to limit every party to ten candidates. Every candidate would face off against every other candidate from their party during primary season, determining the best candidate in the party through round robin play, much as the Big XII did until recently. Every candidate would also compete in at least three “out of party” primaries where their opponent is randomly selected. Candidates could also choose to run independently, facing a wide-ranging schedule of primary opponents.
This system would incentivize candidates to get creative. Because voters could vote in every primary matchup and because each primary would be truly national, Libertarians, Green, and independent candidates would not be disadvantaged. Plus, out-of-party primaries would create intrigue and provoke unique insight about the mood of the country. Every week we’d get weird matchups like John McAfee vs. John Kasich, or huge contests like Ted Cruz vs. Bernie Sanders! What fun!
As a round robin system should reveal the “best candidate” from every party, there would be no “party championships” as there are “conference championships” in college football. Those mostly exist because of the multiple divisions in every conference, which current parties lack.
After the thirteen-week primary season, the top four candidates with the best records would be selected. Ties between candidates with the same record would be broken by objective measurements like victories over common opponents, victories over candidates with better records, and overall margin of victory. There would be only one other rule for selecting these four finalists (and here I also change college football’s procedures slightly to better fit politics): at least one of the four selected must be a third-party or independent candidate. The top four candidates would be seeded according to their record and corresponding tie.
Then we would have a final set of three national elections. The first-ranked candidate faces the fourth; the second competes against the third. The final election, between the two remaining candidates, would be for the presidency.
So there you have it. Modeling presidential elections after college football (with a few slight changes) would reveal the most nationally viable and popular candidate in every party by good old-fashioned round robin play. It would make it more possible for third-party or independent candidates to gain exposure. It’s not confusing to voters, or overly ripe for manipulation. And unlike the current primary system, it’s just plain fun.
Our political discourse today has turned bitter and nasty. All the fun and joy of political prognostication seems lost in widespread frustration and hopelessness. But America is the place of big ideas. When we have a national problem, we innovate. Why not give a college-football-esque presidential primary system a spin? It just might be the solution we need to make politics great again.
This article is also published at Lone Conservative.
Connor Mighell is a third-year law student at The University of Alabama School of Law with an undergraduate degree in Political Philosophy from Baylor University. He is a contributor at Merion West and Lone Conservative, and the curator of “Five in a Flash,” a weekday newsletter. His work has been featured at The Federalist, SB Nation, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Hill. He may be found on Twitter at @cmigbear.