The Mad-Money Primary Race | The Nation


The Mad-Money Primary Race

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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.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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A Democratic presidential contender raises a provocative issue. It’s time to have this debate.

“The American people have the right to hear from the full spectrum of their choices.”

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."

If there is no action before next summer's Republican convention, where GOP rules require the party to begin making changes, what O'Donnell calls the "multiple levels of institutional inertia" will kick in, and the opening for reform will start to close. Unfortunately, there's little sense of urgency. More often than not, even activists who have become passionately involved in debates about voting machines and disenfranchisement neglect the need to address the nominating process.

"How the candidates are nominated defines everything else, yet people get so focused on the horse race that they don't always pay enough attention to the need to make the process functional and democratic," says Rob Richie, an expert on electoral systems who directs FairVote--The Center for Voting and Democracy, which has positioned itself as a key player in the push for reform. "That's the problem, because we have to have more people involved in seeking reform if it's going to happen." Richie is involved, as are assorted reformers, academics, party insiders and political veterans like former Tennessee Senator Bill Brock and California Democratic Party executive board member David Phelps, who have formed a bipartisan Fix the Primaries group, the stated purpose of which is promoting "far-reaching reform options."

The need for a radical reordering goes far beyond the challenges that arose when Iowans struggled to match blue Obama yard signs with green Christmas lights. In a country where the media and political classes far prefer a presidential horse race to the slog of governing, the theater of a front-loaded nominating process is so irresistible that ambitious legislators and journalists exit Washington for Iowa faster than you can say "unfinished business." Obama skipped a key vote on Iran--and then condemned Clinton for showing up and voting with the Bush Administration. Clinton, Obama, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and John McCain all missed the November vote on the Peru Free Trade Agreement, which set the agenda for future trade debates. This is not a new phenomenon, but "senatorial debilitation"--to borrow a phrase from former Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who once proposed a constitutional amendment to boot senators who spent too much time campaigning--is now so thorough that even revelations of presidential lawlessness (for instance, former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's allegation that Bush was in on the plot to discredit former Ambassador Joe Wilson) aren't enough to draw media attention away from kaffeeklatsches in New Hampshire.

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