Kansas, Alaska, South Carolina, Arizona, and Nevada have all canceled their Republican primaries/caucuses in order to throw their support fully behind President Donald Trump, citing the arguably unnecessary costs a primary election would entail when nearly 90% of the party approves of his presidency.
“With no legitimate primary challenger and President Trump’s record of results, the decision was made to save South Carolina taxpayers over $1.2 million and forgo an unnecessary primary,” said South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick in a statement announcing his party’s decision.
But not all Republicans liked the idea.
2020 Republican Trump challenger Bill Weld, former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh, and former South Carolina congressman Mark Sanford argued in a joint op-ed last month that such a move flies in the face of American values—despite being a historically common practice.
“If a party stands for nothing but reelection, it indeed stands for nothing,” they wrote. “Our next nominee must compete in the marketplace of ideas, values and leadership.”
Furthermore, they argued that the litigation costs these state parties “will likely be forced to take on in defending legal challenges to the cancellations will almost certainly exceed the cost of holding the primaries and caucuses themselves.”
Indeed, just weeks later, Republican voters in South Carolina filed suit against the state’s party and its chairman, alleging they violated party rules and state law when canceling the 2020 presidential primary.
“The Executive Committee’s unlawful decision to cancel the primary deprives me and my fellow Republicans of the opportunity to participate in the democratic process,” said Frank Heindel, one of the plaintiffs, in a statement. “We are asking the courts to intervene, to ensure that the backroom dealings of a small group of party insiders cannot disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.”
While the prosecution may take issue with the primary cancellation, the legal charge targets the method by which the South Carolina GOP canceled its primary. The act of canceling a primary, in fact, is perfectly legal.
Primaries Live in ‘No Man’s Land’
Republican National Committee rules outline details of delegate behavior in the event of a presidential preference vote, but do not explicitly state that such a vote must be held in the first place. Indeed, the rules state that delegates can be selected or bound to a decision in multiple ways—not just by the results of a primary election.
“The parties are private organizations and so they can do whatever they want,” Joshua Clinton, co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, told Fortune. “They’re kind of a really unique institution in our society because on the one hand they’re like private clubs, but on the other hand, they run our government.”
As Boston University history professor Bruce Schulman puts it, “primaries live in this kind of no man’s land.”
Caucuses are party-led, but primary elections are run by the state
This is because of Smith v. Allwright, a 1944 case where the Supreme Court ruled the right to participate in the nation’s democratic institution cannot be hindered by an electoral process run by private institutions. The Texas Democratic party had been prohibiting black membership, thus removing their ability to vote in primary elections. This “white primary” was ruled unconstitutional, and states were permitted to regulate parties’ primary elections to prevent further rights abuses.
Each state, however, has its own regulations for presidential primaries. Some have open elections (meaning anyone can vote on any ballot irrespective of their party affiliation), while others have closed elections (meaning only registered party members can participate, and only on their respective party ballots).
How the current situation came to exist is “a different history in each state,” said Schulman. “There’s almost no over-arching federal law about elections at all. Elections are almost entirely a matter of state law.”
Presidential primaries used to be rare
Prior to the 1970s, in fact, presidential primary elections were a rare occurrence. The selection of a presidential nominee was done more through “back room deals,” said Clinton, where delegates would get together at the party convention and vote without public input.
It wasn’t until 1968, when Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination (and lost the general election) without entering a single primary, that party officials considered the idea their delegates may be out of touch with party voters.
The election of 1968 was “such a disaster for the Democrats,” said Clinton, that party leadership considered widespread primary elections would be helpful to gauge “voter enthusiasm for the different candidates.” Democrats held primaries across the nation in the next presidential election, and Republicans joined in the practice shortly thereafter.
Primaries only exist because the parties want them
Beyond state laws regulating their format, primary elections are entirely up to the political party.
“The primaries themselves are created by the parties and so they only exist because the parties want them,” said Clinton. It’s only once a primary election is held that “all the constitutional protections kick in.”
Therefore political parties are free to cancel primary elections. It’s not an unheard of practice either: eight or more primaries were canceled by Republicans in both 1992 and 2004, and by Democrats in 1996 and 2012.
Walsh argued on CNN that this cycle was different because the incumbent has challengers, but in 1992, President George H.W. Bush was challenged by right-wing conservative Patrick Buchanan.
“When a party has an incumbent president seeking reelection and there is no real challenger for the nomination, then it’s not uncommon for some states to cancel primaries,” explained Schulman. What qualifies someone as a “real challenger,” however, is very subjective.
“There’s no standard for it,” said Schulman. “These are former Republican office holders, so they’re serious at least in terms of their resumes.” Still, the five states to cancel their primaries have decided otherwise.
The polls are still in Trump’s favor
Real Clear Politics shows the president is leading by more than 60 points in every poll since late June. His three opponents rejected the idea that such surveys are an accurate representation of public support
“Since when do we use poll numbers as our basis for deciding whether to give voters an opportunity to choose their leaders, much less their presidents?” they asked in their Washington Post op-ed—but Weld slipped back into single-digits in late August, and neither Walsh nor Sanford have yet to top 5%.
The RNC passed a resolution of its “undivided support for President Donald J. Trump and his effective Presidency” at its winter 2019 meeting, so it follows that state affiliations would act in Trump’s favor.
Even with the looming impeachment hearings, Trump serves to benefit from his party’s support in the lead-up to 2020.
“If you don’t have a primary, you don’t have to have any competition, you don’t need to spend any campaign money running a primary election, you don’t have to have discussions that may be uncomfortable and expose blind spots,” said Clinton. “That’s like the law of politics: why would you want to have an election if you don’t need to?”
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