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.”
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.
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.”
A number of savvy reformers, such as California’s Tom Gangale, have come around to supporting a scheme, referred to as the American Plan, that in several senses builds on the strengths of the Delaware Plan. The American Plan is designed to begin with contests in states with small populations and then build over an extended period to primaries in bigger states. The schedule would give candidates with low name recognition and small bank accounts time to score breakthrough wins early and then attract the attention, contributions and support needed to compete with better-known and better-funded contenders in bigger states.
Running from March to June of election years, the American Plan would play out over ten two-week intervals, during which states selected by lot choose delegates. In the first interval, combinations of very small states with a total of eight or fewer Congressional districts–such as New Mexico with five, Maine with two and the District of Columbia with one–would hold primaries or caucuses. The point is to encourage door-to-door “retail politicking” at the opening of the process.
The random selection, via a lottery held a year or more before states choose delegates, would break the Iowa/New Hampshire stranglehold and allow states that are more diverse–such as New Mexico, with its large Hispanic population, and Mississippi, with its large African-American population–to be in the running for first-primary status. It would also stagger the schedule that follows the early contests, avoiding front-loading and creating a situation that would allow grassroots campaigns to build over time, as Jimmy Carter’s did in 1976.
Whether the American Plan is the exact fix is not the point. FairVote’s Richie and the group of reformers associated with the Fix the Primaries project–which includes Republicans like former Senator Brock and Sansonetti, who have worked hard to advance reforms within their party, along with California Democrats like Damian Carroll and David Phelps–go out of their way to highlight all the serious proposals. These include the American Plan, the Delaware Plan, various regional plans and even the national primary scheme. What they really want is for Congress and the parties to create a bipartisan commission to examine the options.
Party officials don’t like the idea of Congressional involvement, as was clear last year when Senators Amy Klobuchar and Lamar Alexander proposed a regional primary system. The parties balked, claiming Congress has no authority to tell them how to nominate candidates. That’s not necessarily true. With voting rights laws, federal grants to the states for the purchase of election machinery and federal funding of campaigns, Congress is already involved in the nominating process. This year the Federal Election Commission will give the Republican and Democratic national committees $4 million apiece to run their conventions. As Tova Wang explains, “The balance of opinion seems to be that the federal government can play some role.” But what role? Rather than proposing a sweeping fix of its own, Congress might do best by prodding the parties with the universal lubricant of American politics: money. Of course, establishing full public financing remains the most appealing reform. But short of that, Congress could promise federal grants to cover all expenses incurred by states that run primaries on a schedule proposed by the commission and accepted by the national parties. That incentive might also encourage states to do away with antidemocratic caucuses, which in 2004 attracted less than 6 percent of eligible voters in Iowa and less than 3 percent in the ten other caucus states.
Even with prodding from Congress, the challenge of getting parties to embrace workable reforms is daunting. Yet it must become a piece of the broader electoral puzzle. Instead of merely complaining about a process that is not putting all its flaws on display, those committed to democratizing it must challenge the likely nominees to support the Fix the Primaries proposal for a bipartisan commission. And activists should work to assure that this summer’s party conventions find room for what Rove shut out in 2000: a serious discussion of how to avoid the chaos of a front-loaded, frequently shifting yet always money- and media-defined nominating process.
Wang points out that the current problems cannot be ignored by those who would repair our political system. “Like other issues that the voting and civil rights communities devote attention to, the flaws in the primary process present a serious challenge to fair and equitable representation,” she says. “Now that the primaries are an expected and important part of the presidential election system, reform groups [need to start addressing] them in accordance with the same democratic principles as they do for general elections.”