Our political process is failing us — and it’s the parties’ fault – The Hill

The first Republican presidential debate is now officially in the books — a futile exercise in political posturing, which is likely to have little impact on the November 2024 election results.

Much like a runner who is the fastest in the first half-mile of a 26.2-mile marathon, the race is just beginning, with each hopeful looking for advantages that will carry them to the finish line to gain their party’s nomination. But recall this headline from the first Democratic presidential debate in 2019: “Front-running Biden stumbles badly in first 2020 Democratic debate.“ Indeed he did, yet as we all know, Biden now sits in the White House.

One danger with these debates is that the candidates vying for their party’s nominations must necessarily distance themselves from the other candidates running. This typically means showing their best sides, while exposing the worst aspects of their rivals. In doing so, they provide ample fodder for the other party when the general election is held.

Getting a party’s nomination guarantees that the candidate who is best positioned to win the national election may not make it out of the primaries. Our nation’s polarized political environment means that winning a party’s nomination demands that a candidate appease their party’s base, which is typically far from the centrist independents across several key states — such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona — that will ultimately determine the election winner.

Data from the 2016 election shows that around 78,000 votes in three states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan) gave Donald Trump the White House. For the 2020 election, 72,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin (plus the 2nd congressional district in Maine) made the difference for Biden. The 2024 election will be no different, with most certainly fewer than 100,000 votes in three yet- to-be identified states determining the winner.

With the gap between voting age-people who registered and those who actually voted accounting for around 15 million votes not cast in each of 2016 and 2020, it would not have taken many of these people to change the outcomes.

The current primary system is designed to ignore this fact, allowing highly partisan voters in numerous states to determine the nominee. This gives the incumbent president a significant advantage, which is why they are best positioned to win reelection.

Not surprisingly, the so-called 13 Keys to the White House includes incumbency as an important factor (Key No.3). It is also why the incumbent party needs the sitting president to run for reelection, with no person challenging for the nomination (Key No.2). In addition, if Cornel West follows suit and runs as a third-party candidate, this will also work against President Biden (Key No.4).

History is on Biden’s side by standing for reelection. Since 1900, only one Democratic president has lost his bid for reelection: Jimmy Carter. In contrast, five Republican presidents were not reelected (Donald Trump, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft).

Indeed, historical patterns not withstanding, the United States has a long history of having to choose from two not completely desirable options. Why is this?

Democrats face a dilemma with President Biden, who is already 80 years of age. If he is reelected, he will be 82 in January 2025. Using Social Security actuarial tables, there is around a 30 percent chance that a man of his age will not live beyond 86.

Certainly, aging has no political affiliation. But is there no one under 82 within the Democratic Party to choose from?

This may be why Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) is asking for his party to provide an alternative to the president, to ensure that Democrats have the best chance to retain the White House. Phillips has been met with resistance from his party, which is placing all their weight behind Biden. 

The picture is undesirable on both sides of the aisle. No matter who wins the Republican nomination, they will face an uphill battle in the general election. At the same time, Democrats are saddling themselves to an octogenarian with an approval rating languishing around 40 percent.

This begs an important question: Shouldn’t the well-being of the nation come before the partisan interests of a party? 

It is astounding that our nation cannot identify and nominate two people (one from each party) that possess the competence, capabilities and stability to give voters viable choices. Such people must certainly exist in both parties. The challenge is getting such people through the nomination process gauntlet, which has become exceedingly treacherous, if at all possible.

The next 14 months leading up to Election Day will bring a flavor akin to film noire. What is most likely is that the most qualified candidates will be nowhere to be found on the election ballot, and the choices presented will be less than ideal. Regrettably, recent history has proven this point.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

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