Does anyone really think the Republican Party is suspending some of its presidential primaries next year merely in order to save money? That’s Donald Trump’s analysis of recent moves by four states — Kansas, South Carolina, Arizona, and Nevada — to bypass nominating contests in 2020. “The four states that canceled don’t want to waste their money,” the president opined on Monday . “Having a primary election is very expensive.” Of course, it has nothing to do with party bosses wanting to clear the field for their mercurial president, who generally responds to personal challenges like a rabid ferret. With a toothache.
It’s hard to think of anything more antidemocratic than canceling an election, even when the outcome is nearly foregone. Disenfranchising an entire state to avoid a Trumpian tantrum is a good illustration of what voters dislike about political parties: insular, opaque, self-protecting. The states without primaries in 2020 will instead choose their delegates at party conventions, another insiders’ game.
South Carolina’s decision to cancel its primary means that Trump challenger Mark Sanford, that state’s former governor, won’t even be able to vote for himself. In Massachusetts, Republican loyalists changed the rules so that the primary will be winner-take-all, lest Trump be embarrassed by even a few proportionately allocated delegates going to favorite son Bill Weld. The one state that can argue credibly that its decision to forgo a nomination contest is not designed specifically to help Trump is Kansas, where the Republican Party has never bothered to hold a caucus when an incumbent president is seeking reelection.
To be sure, Democratic state committees have also foregone presidential primaries. When Bill Clinton was running for a second term, Democrats canceled nomination contests in eight states, and in 2012, when Barack Obama was running, they canceled 10. But most of the states that declined to hold primaries did so only after none of the potential challengers qualified for the ballot. And none of the 50 motley challengers to Obama in 2012 — including such worthies as performance artist Vermin Supreme — had previously served in elected office. Despite Trump calling his announced opponents “a total joke, a laughingstock” and “the Three Stooges,” all three — Weld, Sanford, and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh — were duly elected by thousands of voters in their states. They deserve a chance to be heard.
Given Trump’s autocratic tendencies (“I hereby order,” “I alone can fix it”), his critics can be forgiven for thinking that summarily canceling primary elections is worrisome, even if it is not unprecedented.
In another imperial move, Trump has refused even to debate his challengers. Most incumbents finesse the debate nuisance by scheduling it during a playoff game or holiday weekend, but Trump is nothing if not absolute in his scorn for others. Unlike traditional party conventions, which usually give token speaking roles to the nominee’s primary rivals, Trump has made clear he wants the 2020 Republican convention in Charlotte, N.C., to be a wall-to-wall infomercial, unsullied by any hint of party disunity.
Even if Trump is right that frugality is what’s driving decisions to scrap the primaries in the four states (and in others that may follow suit before the Oct. 1 deadline to call them off), you have to wonder about the cost-benefit ratio. According to the state’s Republican Party chairman, South Carolina’s primary would have cost $1.2 million (out of a $9.3 billion state budget). In Arizona, the state reimburses county election departments at a price of $1.25 per voter. In Nevada, where the parties themselves pay for the primaries, the state GOP estimates it will save $150,000 by scrapping the event. It’s a small price to pay for the most fundamental right of self-governance.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.