Opinion: Election 2024: Where do we go from here?

A vote is inserted into the ballot box by  town moderator Tom Tillotson shortly after midnight in the presidential primary election, Tuesday, Jan. 23, in Dixville Notch.

A vote is inserted into the ballot box by town moderator Tom Tillotson shortly after midnight in the presidential primary election, Tuesday, Jan. 23, in Dixville Notch. Robert F. Bukaty / AP


Published: 07-11-2024 6:00 AM

Dan Weeks spent 20 years promoting democratic election reform as a nonpartisan nonprofit leader. He lives in Nashua with his wife and kids.

We Granite Staters are rightfully proud of our first-in-the-nation presidential primary. For more than a century, it served the country well by providing an open testing ground for would-be leaders of the free world. Here, a national name and campaign war chest were neither necessary nor sufficient to win. Instead, you had to prove yourself in living rooms and diners and town halls, taking real questions from real voters in real time. It’s hard to imagine American democracy succeeding without it when it comes to presidential elections.

Then came 2024. During this pivotal election year, the Democratic Party made the unfortunate decision to bypass the New Hampshire primary entirely, in deference to President Joe Biden, while national Republicans lined up behind former President Donald Trump before the primaries even began. As a result, both candidates were rubber stamped and we the people were effectively denied what we have been telling pollsters we desire all along: a real choice. Not to mention a real democracy.

By all accounts, that choice and that democracy will not come from the right anytime soon. Republicans are firmly in the grips of Trump, a convicted felon with authoritarian ambitions whose success in this election could spell the end of American democracy as we know it. But don’t take my word for it – take Trump’s.

In a Veterans Day speech last November, Trump echoed Adolf Hitler by referring to his political opponents as “vermin” who should be “rooted out.” On multiple occasions, he has declared that if he wins back the White House, he will have “no choice” but to imprison political opponents. He has praised Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin repeatedly, and claimed the right “to do whatever I want as president” including “termination” of parts of the Constitution.

And lest we forget, Trump matched his authoritarian words with actions as president, by enabling white supremacists and summoning a violent mob to the U.S. Capitol as part of a treasonous plot to overturn the 2020 election. Historians called it the “most significant threat to basic constitutionalism we’ve experienced since the Civil War.” Trump called it “peaceful” and continues to salute the violent insurrectionists as ”unbelievable patriots” and “hostages” who he will pardon “the first day we get into office.”

Will Trump “get into office”? By all accounts, the recent presidential debate between Trump and President Biden has given him a decisive advantage. Although Biden has rendered exemplary service to the nation throughout his half-century in Washington, he was unable to defend his many notable achievements or hold Trump to account, in spite of the latter’s incessant lies and misleading statements, which flowed at a rate of one for every minute he spoke. In a shocking display of listlessness, confusion, and verbal blunders, Biden raised serious doubts about his fitness to perform the full duties of president, leading many undecided voters to conclude their only choice is Trump.

According to the major post-debate polls, 74% of voters (including Biden’s own supporters) now believe the president is unable to be effective and Trump’s lead has doubled to six points among likely voters, and nine points among registered voters. That translates to a 312 to 226 Electoral College landslide for Trump if the election were held today. By contrast, at this time in the 2020 election cycle, Biden was leading Trump by eight points – just enough to squeak by in swing states due to Republicans’ built-in Electoral College advantage.

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The resulting panic from Democrats, who are increasingly calling on Biden to step aside, could lead to just the solution we need to protect American democracy in 2024: putting democracy into practice, New Hampshire-style. Which brings me back to the New Hampshire primary and a simple prescription for where we might go from here.

Although we lack the time to restart the presidential primaries full-tilt, Democrats could still give the nation what so many voters desire in the form of a “mini-primary” to select the most qualified replacement for Biden between now and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in August. Imagine a series of nationally televised town halls, one in every region of the country, in which the top five to ten Democratic contenders were invited to share their stories and how they would address the major issues of the day. Although these forums would not be nearly as intimate as New Hampshire town halls, they could still allow voters to submit their questions to a group of independent moderators, who would randomly select which questions to ask while ensuring a balance of issues and voices.

Of course, no perfect method exists for shortlisting candidates to participate in the town halls, but polling averages from a nationally representative sample of independent surveys could do the job. In addition to the televised forums, the candidates would crisscross the nation conducting interviews and meeting voters — perhaps in a New Hampshire diner or two — in a bid to win broad public support and, ultimately, a majority of the roughly 4,700 Democratic delegates at the DNC to become the nominee.

Is there uncertainty and risk? Of course. But the uncertainty would be overcome in six short weeks at the DNC while the risk cannot be greater than Trump’s decisive advantage today if Biden is confirmed as the Democratic nominee. And let’s not forget that open conventions were the standard means by which both parties selected their nominees, from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, until the early 1970s. Only this one would be enhanced by the mini-primary, an event that would transfix the nation and galvanize voters like never before.

At this pivotal moment in American history, we should prevail on Biden to render a final decisive service to the nation he has loved so well by releasing his delegates and embracing this open and orderly process to select the strongest possible successor at the DNC. Our democracy demands no less.