Forget the debate about separation of church and state, at least when it comes to this year’s first presidential caucuses and primaries. In late December and early January, along the back roads of Iowa and the country lanes spoking out from New Hampshire villages, campaign signs for not just fundamentalist Republican Mike Huckabee but for more secularly inclined Democrat John Edwards ended up sharing front-yard space with Nativity scenes. That’s what happens when the nominating processes of two parties get front-loaded into the thick of the holiday season.
That front-loading means that the decisions made before the Twelve Days of Christmas were finished began a frenzy of caucuses and primaries that, in barely a month, is all but certain to identify the presidential nominees. If anything, the sped-up process made Iowa and New Hampshire more important, since strong showings at the start became all the more essential. That’s because, despite the candidates’ having spent years amassing millions in campaign funds, few will have enough to buy the television commercials they’ll need to compete in the February 5 “Tsunami Tuesday,” when more than twenty states, from New York to California, will be voting as part of the most absurdly accelerated, money-driven, grassroots-stomping and confusing nominating process in the history of the Republic.
Front-loading is not an entirely new phenomenon. Since the modern primary system came into being in 1968 and 1972, notes Tova Wang, a Democracy Fellow with the Century Foundation, “states have tried to outmaneuver each other for attention and influence” while “the parties have attempted to hold back that scramble.” As the 2008 process took shape, however, any semblance of order was lost. What University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato refers to as “scheduling insanity” took hold. With the key players aware that party conventions are little more than theatrical productions, state officials seeking to leap ahead of schedules established by party chieftains no longer took seriously threats by the national committees to dock delegates from the summer sessions. Besides, the starting-gate jumpers calculated, the eventual nominees would invariably allow seating of delegations from states where they must compete in November. So Michigan, Florida and other states set January primary and caucus dates, forcing Iowa and New Hampshire officials to defend their franchises by moving close to Christmas.
“It’s awful,” says Gwen Carr, a former Democratic National Committee staffer. “No one can make any sense of it except the insiders, and even they are having trouble.”
This year’s nomination process is troublesome on many levels. And the need to clean it up is an urgent if little understood corollary to the current contest. It’s too late to fix 2008, but now is the time to get serious about repairing the process. Every engaged observer agrees that if reforms are not implemented, the front-loading will only speed up in 2012, as states break the New Year’s barrier and create a schedule that could see delegate selection begin a year before the party nominees face off.
To halt the slide toward anarchy, reformers must sort through a dizzying array of proposals, from schemes to establish national or regional primaries to a lottery system that would allow time for grassroots candidacies to emerge. They should ask tough questions about whether caucuses are democratic in spirit or practice. They should recognize that Congressional intervention may be necessary to force parties and states to do the right thing. And they must understand, as FairVote’s Ryan O’Donnell says, that “once an incumbent is nominated and elected, he or she has no interest in changing the schedule.”