I’ve seen this article from the New York Times going around on Facebook and Twitter. The premise, that the two major party nominees were selected by just 9% of the American population, is true. And in a year where people are shaking their heads at the deeply unpleasant candidates we’re left to choose from, it answers a common question: how did we get here?
But when you think about it, this is basically true every year. Admittedly, Trump won with a smaller percent of the Republican primary vote than previous nominees, and Clinton had a vigorous challenger as well, but even in a more settled year, that would increase the percentage of primary voters who selected the nominees only slightly. Ten, maybe eleven percent. Would that make you feel that much better?
Even if both candidates got 100% of their respective primaries’ votes, that would mean that 14% of the populace would have selected them. In practice, it would have been even fewer people, since uncontested primaries have low turnout. This year, Clinton got 16 million votes out of 30 million cast in the Democratic primaries. In 2012, President Obama had no serious primary opposition, so he got nearly 89% of the vote, but in a low-turnout election that only added up to a little over 6 million votes.
Add that to Romney’s vote total in the Republican primaries (10 million out of 19 million cast) and we get 16 million people selecting the nominees. That’s 4.9% of the American population. Even if Obama had fought a contested primary and received as many votes as Romney, that raises the total to 20 million–just over 6%. Does that make Romney’s and Obama’s nominations somehow less representative of the people’s will? Of course not.
There are many problems with the primary process, but this is not one of them. The barriers to entry are ridiculously low. In open primary states, you just have to register to vote. In closed primary states, you have to register to vote with a party. Both of these are free, and voting takes just a few minutes of one day. Caucuses take a little longer–a couple of hours, but still a minor commitment for someone who cares about the direction the country takes in the next four years.
The Times article is nicely presented and has their usual great graphics. But as an attempt to point out a legitimate problem in the electoral process, it falls short.