Are the Primaries “Rigged”?

In many ways, following politics is like following sports. There are the terms: comeback, blowout, brawl, momentum, who’s ahead, who’s behind, knockout punch, and so many more. There are the colors: red team, blue team (green team!). Most of all, there’s the innate disposition of the fans. We root for “Team X” usually because we’re instructed to by our environment, whether geographical, familial, social, demographical, or a combination thereof. It always feels like we’re on the right side, but ultimately it’s more tribal than anything. We identify with a group because a long time ago strength in numbers mostly weeded out those who didn’t.

Of course, the consequences of politics far outweigh the consequences of sports (well, most of the time, anyway), but the above similarities help explain how we perceive our politicians. We’re on the side of “right,” and we usually surround ourselves with those who agree and seek out information that supports our position. Consequently, we see a lot more negative facts and opinions about the party and politicians we don’t like than the ones we do, while we also see a lot more positive things about the party and supporters we do like than the ones we don’t. We also outright interpret information — which we deem as factual — to fit our opinions. (See: reinforcement theory and confirmation bias)

Here’s a personal case in point. By far the most read post on this website is an October piece praising Ted Cruz’s campaign and predicting his imminent rise, which then got emailed, tweeted, and facebooked between the #CruzCrew. My next three most widely read posts were anti-Trump takes, which then got shared with people who were anti-Trump. When I wrote “No, Trump Did Not Have a Good Debate,” I knew it was going to be relatively big, and it turned out to be my second most read post. More frequently, however, my posts attempt to be balanced, but readers seem much less likely to spread that to their friends. For that reason, I don’t expect this post to get any traction. (Go ahead. Prove me wrong.) In fact, by the end of it, you might well be thinking of all the examples I could have used to prop up your candidate and tear down his or her opponents; just remember, those who disagree are thinking the same exact thing.


We’re seeing these factors rear their prejudicial heads with today’s politics. All the campaigns, and by extension their supporters, think they’re being treated unfairly. Further, all campaigns laugh at the idea that another campaign might feel that way. Once again, it’s like sports. Think of every game where you thought the officials’ calls and random ball bounces went against your team, and how rarely you see it the opposite way. Have you listened to parents at high school basketball games? The refs are against us. The game is rigged. Every teams’ fans see it that way, but the reality of that perception is, of course, impossible.

Most vocally, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, whose supporters are improbably in agreement on some issues, have complained about the system being rigged against them. How much merit does this argument have?

Quite a bit, actually, but I would argue not as much as they think. Let’s first address the charges from the Sanders Campaign, many of them legitimate problems in our political system.

Superdelegates account for about 15 percent of the Democratic National Convention’s delegates. They have a disproportionate amount of power over the nominating process, making it far from “one person, one vote.” Moreover, the superdelegates are not representative of average Americans. They’re political insiders, and political insiders have different concerns than Joe Citizen. In this case, they’re overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee, and each one weighs as much as tens of thousands of Sanders supporters.

We also hear about Sanders’s concern with closed primaries, which disenfranchise independents, calling them undemocratic. They can lock out half the electorate of a given state, and Sanders points out that three million New Yorkers couldn’t vote on Tuesday because of this rule.

Meanwhile, coverage from the media is accused of being one-sided, whether that means the media wants Clinton to win (because of their ties to her or her background making a great narrative), or the media inadvertently crowning her by saying she’s inevitable, or by irresponsibly baking in the superdelegate numbers when talking about delegate standings (which shows Clinton with a huge lead and might dissuade Sanders supporters from bothering to vote).

However, if someone is rooting for the other team, these charges can be explained away. Superdelegates were created to ensure radicals aren’t nominated, and to insure against an electoral blowout in November like the one in ’72. The voting masses can be easily won over with free gifts from a candidate, but that doesn’t make them the best nominee, the best president, or the best Führer. Superdelegates are a check on the people’s power, which is something our founding fathers prioritized over direct democracy. For example, most progressives should wish that the Republican National Committee had superdelegates so they could block Trump from being one election away from the Oval Office.

As far as closed primaries go, it’s reasonable that members of political parties are the only ones who should pick that party’s nominee. To allow outside influence is to open a party up to mischievousness, like the kind Rush Limbaugh spearheaded in the 2008 Democratic Primary. Voters who aren’t citizens of a country aren’t able to vote for that country’s leaders, even though that country could most certainly affect their own. Citizens of Ohio aren’t able to vote for the senators from Utah, even though those senators make votes that affect Ohio. Likewise, voters who aren’t members of a party shouldn’t necessarily be able to vote for that party’s leaders, even if that candidate can ultimately affect everyone else. It’s a club, essentially, and club’s members elect their own leadership. Disenfranchisement is too strong an accusation. Consider that independents are welcome to register for a party (and day-of registration for a primary would still allow the shenanigans a party understandably wants to avoid). Short of that, independents also free to vote for anyone they want in the general election.

As for media bias, it’s probably the most common complaint you’ll hear from fans of every candidate. (With the exception Barack Obama’s supporters in 2008, who couldn’t possibly complain about coverage. I’m pretty sure the media, and not Joe Biden, was actually his running mate. Wolf Blitzer might be one heartbeat from the presidency.) At least one analysis says that it’s Hillary Clinton who receives the most negative coverage of all the candidates. Plus, it stands to reason that the media would rather have a close race than a blowout; I’ve noticed many times where it promotes polls favorable Sanders polls over less favorable ones because that gives the talking heads more to talk about with their heads. Remember, media outlets are driven by the bottom line, which is why it couldn’t help but plaster Trump all over the airwaves for the last year. Does the media want Trump to be president? Probably not. But they helped him to it because the bottom line drives everything. Sure, the media is biased; it’s biased toward drama, and it’s biased toward dollars.

Meanwhile, Clinton supporters can also talk about things being “rigged” against them, too. How about the fact that the primary opens with Iowa and New Hampshire? Those are two tiny, white, liberal states — and one of them a caucus. The third state was a caucus, too. Those are in Sanders’s wheel house, and they set the tone for this entire competitive primary. Why do they get more influence than New Jersey and Mississippi, who have a lot more people and are more demographically representative of the party?

Similarly, if Sanders voters really wanted to turn over every stone of disenfranchisement, they’d find it dubious that it took four contests before a state with a sizable African-American population got to vote. They’re the party’s most loyal constituency, and yet the party didn’t care what they had to say until almost Super Tuesday. Clinton supporters think that this primary wouldn’t be close if it started with South Carolina and Louisiana instead of Iowa and New Hampshire, but that kind of information doesn’t weigh as much in the minds of Sanders fans.

Additionally, a Clinton supporter can ask how caucuses are still a thing. “One person one vote”? Does that even work when someone can get badgered about their vote in a high school gymnasium? Do young Clinton supporters dare speak up in caucuses held in college towns?

All considered, I’d have to side on Sanders’s side with Superdelegates, which are indefensible in a supposedly democratic party, and should never — EVER — be misleadingly lumped into state-by-state totals by media outlets. It’s also undeniable that the establishment candidate usually has many built in advantages, much like an incumbent in reelection (though this year we might have seen the opposite on both sides).

That being said, we can’t forget that Clinton has won over 56 percent of the popular vote even with Sanders breaking fundraising records. If Sanders got 56 percent of the vote, he would be the favorite. Democracy says the right person is winning this primary, even if she did have more built-in advantages. I would call it unfair, but I wouldn’t call it rigged.


At least the Democratic Primary does proportional allocation. What might Trump say about how the GOP runs things?

  • If you wanna know the truth, this is a bad system. It is so rigged it’s unbelievable. It’s a bad, bad system. Believe me.
  • The caucus and convention system is so convoluted you won’t believe it. I mean, I could win them if I felt like it, but it’s just not worth my time.
  • It’s not democratic. At least the Democrats have proportional allocations based on the people’s votes. I mean, don’t get me started on their superdelegates, but at least they do proportional. I don’t agree with Bernie on much — I don’t like the whole communism thing — but folks, he’s really getting schlonged over there.
  • The media is against us! So many negative stories, and they harp on every little comment I make. They do it because that’s how they get their money. And I know a thing or two about money, okay folks? They need me and can’t stand it, if you wanna know the truth. Believe me.

Trump supporters will mostly see things the same way. On the other hand, fans of more establishment Republicans — which somehow includes Ted Cruz these days — can claim that everyone knew the rules ahead of time. Everyone is playing by the same parameters. By that definition, it’s hard to see how the system is “rigged.” Cruz joked that it’s not his fault that Trump is showing he couldn’t competently run “a lemonade stand,” to say nothing of a presidential campaign and, by implication, the executive branch of government.

Plus, Trump has only won 38 percent of the popular vote but nearly 49 percent of the allocated delegates (846 out of 1,728). He complains about the undemocratic nature of the primary, but if it was truly democratic, he’d have a lot fewer delegates. John Kasich, meanwhile, would have nearly 100 more delegates. Essentially, Trump’s voters have had their votes count more than Kasich’s voters. Trump has mostly benefited from the rules he ostensibly despises. It’s probable that, like every other politician, he merely likes the rules that help him and denounces the ones that don’t.

As far as the latest media bias point, we again have a counterargument. The media has allowed, and many say pushed, Trump’s candidacy. In such a huge field, it was extremely difficult for more even-tempered candidates to get air time. The media just turns its air over to Trump, who costs nothing to the network but drives huge ratings. The media should have been much more balanced in its coverage. Moreover, the #NeverTrump conservatives can play the “what can we expect but the liberal media mostly covering the most liberal candidate in the race?” card.

Ultimately, I’m not sure “rigged” is the way to describe the Republican process, either, but it certainly seems to lack in outright democracy. Trump is right about the Colorado and Wyoming nonsense. Even if they followed established state rules, their caucuses and conventions were not democracy in action. Nevertheless, more than negating delegates from a few western caucus and convention states is the fact that Republican winner-take-all rules in states and districts have mostly helped him and swamped the other candidates.


Frankly, more than either primary, the root of the “rigging” is actually that we only have two major parties who then make their own rules. Trump and Sanders (and Bloomberg) could run as independents and then everyone could vote for them, but there are so many hurdles to those bids and then they’d lack party funding on top of it. Their efforts would be hopeless and we’d still be stuck with our duopoly. Like sports, most of the country would be stuck just rooting for laundry with a rotating set of bodies inside of them.

But that’s a rant for another time.

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