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Politics & Policy

Reforming the Primaries: The Question of Independents

Jeremy Peters reports in the New York Times that Republicans are debating changing the presidential primaries for next time:

Leaders of the Republican Party have begun internal deliberations over what would be fundamental changes to the way its presidential nominees are chosen, a recognition that the chaotic process that played out this year is seriously flawed and helped exacerbate tensions within the party.

One set of changes concerns the sequence in which states vote. Another concerns whether primaries should be restricted to members of the party.

Mr. Trump won the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where voters are not required to be party members. That has spurred some from the party’s conservative wing, including many supporters of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, to question whether independents are exercising too much influence in Republican contests.

This seems to me to be a dead end. Trump didn’t win either state on the strength of his support from non-Republicans. He came in first among Republican voters in South Carolina with 32 percent of their votes, and only did one point better among independents. In New Hampshire, he did just as well among Republicans and independents, winning 36 percent of each. (Because John Kasich did better with independents than with Republicans, Trump actually had a bigger margin among Republican voters than among independents.)

I think it makes sense for the nomination contest to feature a mix of open and closed primaries: The nominee should be someone who has demonstrated a strong appeal to the party faithful and beyond it.

There are, however, two changes to the primaries that I think Republicans should consider. One would be for some states to use an instant runoff or a similar mechanism to make sure that the person who wins the most delegates from the state reflects the preference of most primary voters. A second would be for states to refrain from allocating all their delegates to a mere plurality winner. Both reforms would be designed to push a little bit more than the current process does toward a consensus nominee.

Those reforms might have altered the course of the primaries. I don’t think closing the primaries to non-Republicans would have.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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