The Mad-Money Primary Race
Just as governing suffers, so too does politics. "Concluding the nomination process in the winter for all intents and purposes leaves the parties' nominees in waiting, and voters with a vacuum for many months, until the conventions in the late summer," explains Wang. "That gap tends to induce the anointed candidates to focus on raising private money while the public's attention subsides, reducing the amount of time that might be more productively devoted to debating the major issues."
The current nominating process is so antithetical to grassroots activism in any but a handful of states that the best bet is that the two nominees will be more in tune with big donors and Washington consultants than with base voters or the zeitgeist. The front-loading has made Iowa eccentrics and check-writing cynics even more supreme than they already were. And Iowa's supposed make-or-break influence has little to do with political prescience. A candidate's ability to win its caucuses does not necessarily translate into winning the state in the general election--2004 Democratic caucus winner John Kerry went on to be the first Democrat since Walter Mondale to lose the state in November. Yet it was a first-place finish in Iowa that gave Kerry the publicity surge and fundraising force that finished off Howard Dean in New Hampshire. Dean might have been able to undo the damage of Iowa--including the media obsession with his caucus-night "scream"--if he'd had a little more time. But there was no breathing space in 2004, and there is even less in 2008: New Hampshire starts voting less than 100 hours after Iowa caucusing finishes. Then comes the mad rush ending with the February 5 tsunami. "I get dizzy just thinking about it," says a Democratic campaign strategist. "We go for broke in Iowa and New Hampshire, but after that I don't know where to put the candidate, where to buy ads. It's crazy."
Huckabee's surge might appear to call into question a trend that favors name recognition, big money and connections. But even Huckabee's supposedly low-budget campaign--which spent millions in Iowa and New Hampshire--owes less to the media fantasy of his "folksy charm" than a sophisticated appeal to religious prejudice against Mormon Mitt Romney. That reality has GOP insiders writing off the Arkansas evangelical on the theory that, while Huckabee's appeal might prevail in states where low-turnout caucuses and primaries heighten the influence of his evangelical base, he can be stomped in the February 5 "money race." No one knows the minimum needed to compete seriously on that day, but it could easily be $25 million.
Can this rigged system be reordered to create a fair fight in 2012? Yes, but it depends on the ability of reformers to capture a moment when, as veteran political strategist Steve Cobble, a longtime advocate of reform, says, "disgust with how it has all played out will be fresh enough, even among candidates and consultants, to create an opening for real reform."
Unfortunately, even if most of the political class is disgusted, a few key players can still thwart action. After all, it was Karl Rove who effectively created the current crisis when he blocked a Republican task force proposal to restore order with a rational and competitive primary schedule. Under the so-called Delaware Plan, the smallest twelve states would have chosen delegates in March, the next smallest fourteen in April, the next thirteen in May and the remainder in June. The schedule was designed to assure that the majority of delegates would not be chosen until the end, increasing the chance that a long, serious race for the nomination would play out over four months.
The Delaware Plan was to be debated at the 2000 convention, but Rove canceled it. "It had nothing to do with the merits of the plan," explained former Wyoming party chair Tom Sansonetti, who headed the task force. "It was just that the convention was scripted, and there was no room for a floor fight on whether or not the Delaware Plan should be adopted or whether the party was going to stay with its present system." The general sense among political insiders is that had the GOP embraced the reform, the Democrats would have done the same. But when the Republicans stopped talking about repairing the process, the discussion died.
Like many good ideas put on hold by Rove, the Delaware Plan or some variant merits reconsideration. It is far superior to holding a "national primary," which was advocated for many years by progressive reformers. On the surface, a national primary makes sense, as it would allow members of each party to vote on the same day to select candidates. The problem is that in the absence of fundamental campaign finance and media reform, a national primary would replicate most of the pathologies of November elections, with soundbites and thirty-second commercials defining a big-money, small-idea race. The same goes for regional primaries. As Cobble, a strategist for Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign who is now aiding Dennis Kucinich's quest for the Democratic nomination, says, "The idea of regional primaries taking place on or around the same day is even dumber than a national primary. Not only do candidates have to run media campaigns across various states, which creates a barrier to grassroots and insurgent campaigns; the early stages of the race--which are still likely to be most influential--can be distorted by regional issues that will differ radically if the voting starts in New England versus the South."