The presidential primary process is officially out of control.
One of the very first posts I wrote in The 7-10 was about how the presidential primary process was in need of major overhaul. In that post, I could not wrap my brain around why Iowa and New Hampshire had the privilege of getting first crack at selecting the presidential nominees cycle after cycle. After all, what makes the people of Des Moines and Concord so uniquely qualified to be accurate judges of a candidate's viability?
I also discussed some of the proposals that have been floated about, such as the Delaware Plan, which basically divides the states according to their populations and has the primaries of the less populated states take place before those of the more populated states.
While I do not fully agree with the Delaware Plan, I do believe that is a marked improvement over the system we have now. The national parties tried to improve the process by allowing Nevada and South Carolina to move their primaries up to introduce more diversity into the process, but that has only created a bigger mess.
As Nevada and South Carolina moved up to the front of the line, other states began to feel left out and wanted in on the action. This is entirely understandable because there is so much interest among voters in selecting the next presidential nominees, especially because of Iraq. So they moved their primary dates up in an attempt to have more influence over the process.
As a result, February 5, normally known as Super Tuesday has become known as Tsunami Tuesday or Super Duper Tuesday. Some states have even decided to encroach on the early states' turf by scheduling their contests before this date despite the risk of losing their delegates at next year's conventions when the primaries' victors are formally nominated. This has led to the Democratic Party trying to restore a bit of sanity to the process by asking its candidates to sign a pledge stating that they would not campaign in any state that was not authorized to have its contest before February 5.
Whatever. This is all stupid.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. The system is broken. It doesn't matter what the national parties mandate. It doesn't matter how many delegates a state stands to lose. It doesn't matter when a state holds its contest. Until the primary season is conducted in a manner that does not reward certain states just because of "tradition," this process will remain a national embarrassment.
I happen to live in South Carolina, which is an early voting state. Lots of candidates crisscross the state stumping for votes and it's hard to open the local paper without reading about how Candidate X attended a luncheon at a local restaurant or how Candidate Y gave a speech at a local church. Needless to say, I've had the opportunity to meet several of the candidates. If I think about it selfishly, I guess I have it pretty good living in South Carolina. But when I dissociate myself from where I live and think about this pragmatically, I can't help but feel that people in North Carolina or South Dakota have a right to be upset. Voters in those states have real issues that they want to discuss with the presidential candidates, but they will never get a chance to do so simply because of "tradition."
Again, I already ranted about why I don't understand what makes New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada so special when it comes to getting first crack at the presidential candidates, so I don't need to do that here. I'm more interested in talking about why this bothers the other states so much and how it can best be fixed.
Politicos commonly say that there are three tickets out of Iowa and two tickets out of New Hampshire. Wonderful. So this means that a field of 9 Republicans and 8 Democrats will be whittled down by 75% before 96% of the states even have a chance to let their voices be heard. And if the so-called frontrunners win these first two contests, the rest of the primary season simply doesn't matter. Primaries from then on would be mere formalities. So 48 states would have to be content with the candidates that voters in 2 (very small) states settled on. If a candidate places 3rd in Iowa and 2nd in New Hampshire, both of which are respectable showings, that candidate is finished even if voters in the other states like him because nobody wants to vote for someone who isn't perceived to be a winner. Case in point, despite John Edwards' strong showing in Iowa in 2004, he was never able to get over the hump and wrest the nomination from John Kerry, a virtual nobody in most of those later states' polls right before the Iowa caucuses.
On top of this, and on the flip side, if there is a surprise result in Iowa or New Hampshire by a less well funded or longshot candidate, then that candidate has to contend with the fact that voters in the later states don't know who he is and there's not enough time for him to build up his name recognition and develop a campaign apparatus. Meanwhile, the candidate with all the money and name recognition will have a head start. If John Edwards wins Iowa, Joe Biden places second, and Hillary Clinton places third, do you honestly think Joe Biden will be better equipped to handle South Carolina than Clinton would despite his superior showing in the first contest?
Either way, nominations these days are all sewn up before most of the states even get a chance to participate. And that is unfair. So the question then becomes how to fix it.
In Primarily Stupid, I floated the idea of basing primary order on voter participation in the previous presidential election. I'm going to call this the Palmer Plan. The 50 state parties and state election officials would work with each other to provide statistics about how many eligible voters actually voted in the previous presidential election. These voter turnout statistics would then be used to determine when each state could hold its primary. The four states with the highest voter turnout would then earn the right to have their primaries first and on individual days. States ranked 5-10 would then have their primaries in pairs (#5 and #6 on the same day, #7 and #8 together, etc.). States ranked 11-25 would have their primaries in groups of 4. And states ranked 26-50 would have their primaries in groups of 6.
This model would reward the states that get their voters to the polls and penalize states whose voters are more apathetic. It also gives voters a sense of ownership over the primary process. And for the first time in a long time, people's votes will actually matter. Republicans in New York and Democrats in Texas are used to their votes not counting in primary elections or in presidential elections. This idea would change that because even if a state is not competitive (does anybody really expect Fred Thompson to win Connecticut or for Hillary Clinton to carry Alabama?), at least their vote will help give their state a better chance of holding their primary contest for the next cycle a bit earlier. This idea would also keep presidential candidates on their toes too. Right now, campaign managers know the ins and outs of Iowa and New Hampshire like the back of their hand. That luxury will diminish with this idea because the 2012 election may kick off with caucuses in Kentucky followed by Georgia, while the 2016 cycle may start with Arizona and then Maine. As an added benefit, West Coast voters will have an incentive to get to the polls regardless of how lopsided an election may seem based on the results from the polls back East.
A national primary is another idea that I commonly hear people talk about. This is an awful idea though because it rewards the candidates with the most money and most name recognition. Such an idea does have some potential, however, in that a series of national primaries could take place and the candidate with the weakest support gets cut from the next ballot. Candidates who get cut from the ballot could then endorse other weaker candidates and pool their resources and consolidate their support to bring down more powerful candidates. A Dennis Kucinich could get cut from the ballot and then endorse John Edwards and have that alliance remove Barack Obama from the ballot, for example. I kinda like this idea, although I don't like it as much as the Palmer Plan listed above. I think I'll call this the Palmer B Plan.
Public funding of campaigns is an obvious reform that is needed and it pertains not just to the primaries, but also the general election. Speaking of which, the Electoral College is the next nightmare that needs to be addressed, but until an agent of change wins the White House, I don't really expect any of these problems to be resolved anytime soon.
The presidential primary process is officially out of control.