Across the country, the primary election cycle is heating up; Iowa and New Hampshire have already chosen their candidates. Soon, Florida will have its turn. On March 19, Floridians will head to the ballot box, casting their votes for their preferred presidential candidate. Well … Florida Republicans will.
Meanwhile, Democrats will be staying home. The decision has been made for us. The Florida Democratic Party has canceled its presidential preference primary, automatically awarding all 250 delegates to President Joe Biden.
This is not unique to this election or party. Instead, it reflects a political culture that treats incumbent candidates — current officeholders running for re-election — as the default, their primary races as mere formalities and their opponents as spoilers with no chance of election.
Biden was nominated automatically because this culture discourages challengers and props the incumbent up as the only option. The Florida Democratic Party admits, “This is the standard process … It is not uncommon for an incumbent president to be declared the automatic winner of a presidential primary.” This decision was not an exception, but perhaps it should be the final straw. It is time to rethink automatic incumbent support.
Instantly re-nominating the incumbent is not necessarily the best practice. More competitive primaries would produce more accountability, facilitate policy innovation and give more power to the people.
Elections should serve as a chance to reward or punish incumbents. Still, when handed their party’s nomination without challenge, one cannot punish the incumbent without punishing the party. With no other option, Democrats are forced to vote for Biden or hand the White House to the Republicans.
If the country were to welcome primary challengers, it would give those unhappy with the incumbent an alternative within their party. The party could remove underperforming leaders while maintaining their hold on the presidency. On the other hand, strong incumbents would be rewarded by the voters. This would make the parties stronger and more responsive to their voters.
Parties would also benefit from more competitive primaries because it would spur policy discourse within the party, generating fresh ideas. Presidential candidates frequently adopt the ideas of their primary opponents when the public reacts favorably toward them. These conversations with both parties every four years, rather than every eight years, making the parties’ platforms more innovative and aligned with voters.
Finally, making an incumbent’s primary competitive is simply the democratic thing to do. Primaries were, in large part, created to give more significant influence to the people and lessen elite control of the nomination process. By deferring to the incumbent, we are not accomplishing this goal. Developing a culture encouraging competition would allow voters, rather than the parties, to make democratic decisions.
Parties frown upon incumbent challengers because they argue they act as spoilers, taking time and money away from the general election and dividing the party. However, this effect does not occur when the incumbent is a well-liked candidate. Former President Donald Trump’s current run is evidence of this. While he does have challengers, his party base likes him enough that the competition is not harming his campaign. If incumbents consistently earned the respect of their voters, a competitive primary would serve as no roadblock. The country is more robust when elections allow voters to reward and punish incumbents.
A shift in culture needs to begin with the public. It is time to pressure our party leaders to support competitive primaries, even with an incumbent running. While transforming this culture is challenging, it is necessary to ensure a more representative and responsive government. Only then can democracy truly flourish.
Ashley Mason is a UF political science graduate student.