January 10, 2008
Just about everybody from every state except Iowa and New Hampshire agrees that the so-called "system" of presidential primaries needs reform. Actually, "reform" isn’t quite the right word, because there is hardly any form to the process to begin with. Every state is sovereign in determining the date of its primaries or caucuses, and this year’s leap-frogging to ever-earlier dates shows you how possessive they are of their prerogative.
Every state wants to be a recognizable player in the selection process — to be what Iowa and New Hampshire have become, places where candidates will invest their time and money to court the voters personally, where the media will pay them specific attention, and where the outcome will influence the dynamics of the race. For this notoriety, this momentary place in history, several states, including populous Florida and Michigan, were more than willing to forfeit all or part of their national convention delegates to defy the primary-season start date agreed upon by the Democratic and Republican national committees, February 5. Over twenty other states, fearing the penalties, piled on to February 5, inadvertently creating "Super-Duper Tuesday" and burying their hopes for uniqueness in the heap. The other twenty-some states (and other entities such as American possessions) chose later dates.
This year, those states with the courage to leap-frog may prove themselves right. Just look at tiny Wyoming. Their Republican convention held last Saturday (the Democrats held back till March 8 but probably wish they hadn’t) drew more participants than ever before and made the national news. Positioned between Iowa and New Hampshire, the vote took on far bigger proportions than their delegate count in itself could ever suggest: Mitt Romney won eight delegates and Fred Thompson, three; even the obscure Duncan Hunter picked up one. The same holds true, and then some, for Michigan and Florida, whose primaries are scheduled for January 15 and 29 respectively. Deprived entirely of voting convention delegates by the Democratic National Committee and of half of them by the Republican, they nevertheless charged forward, trusting that what amounts to a state-sponsored poll would nevertheless put them in the spotlight.
As the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses has demonstrated, the effect of the earliest votes on later ones is psychological, not mathematical. Not a single convention delegate was chosen in Iowa — that comes later at the party conventions and is not formally tied to the caucus votes — but it did not matter. It is voter sentiment, not the number of delegates, that gives a candidate momentum. And once momentum builds, as we’ve seen over the last week, subsequent elections are governed by sentiment.
If you were organizing the nomination process, how would you do it?
Over decades, countless plans have been proposed by scholars, study groups, and legislators. The simplest is a single national primary day, where the entire business would be finished in one stroke. This, of course, would eliminate the local politicking we find so charming (and occasionally so insightful) about Iowa and New Hampshire, and any momentum gained by candidates would have to come from periodic polling data prior to the election. But it might also reduce the absurd campaign spending of state-by-state primaries.
Other proposals spread the primaries over a period of months. The so-called "Delaware Plan," for example, sets four dates between March and June for approximately 13 states each, grouped by size from smallest to largest. This scheme would preserve grass-roots campaigning in the small states at the outset but include a wider representation beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.
The National Association of Secretaries of State has long endorsed regional primaries. Four clusters of adjoining states would be scheduled monthly from March through June, and the regions would rotate from last up to first over the years. Iowa and New Hampshire would retain their pride of place before the first primary date. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee recently introduced a bill to implement this system.
Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Sandy Levin of Michigan, divides the states into six regions and within them six sub-regions (designated A through F), clustered to balance out their delegate counts. The sub-regions would be chosen by lottery each election year to occupy six primary days from March through June. The primaries would thus be distributed evenly across the country, with an equal number of delegates at stake each time. This approach would allow candidates to manage their resources more effectively and make the momentum factor more gradual.
It is alluring to think of a national policy to order the nominee-selection process, but this may be just a dream. Over 300 primary-reform bills have been introduced in Congress over the years; all have thusfar faltered. Even if one did become law, it might prove to be unconstitutional, since the primaries ultimately involve the appointment of presidential electors, which the Constitution specifically leaves to the states.
You’d think that the Democratic and Republican National Committees would be able to implement a national plan, but all they can do is recommend and cajole, and as we’ve seen this year, even cajoling doesn’t work. Only a consensus among all or most of the states could do it.
But don’t hold your breath.