Arnie Arnesen does not know exactly when the political wind shifted. It might have been on the day Trent Lott was forced to step down as Senate majority leader. It might have been when she heard a businessman she knew describe President Bush’s economic stimulus plan as “crazy.” It might have been when she noticed antiwar vigils were being held in the small towns of her home state of New Hampshire. But somewhere between the dark days of last November, when Democrats questioned whether they should even bother to challenge George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, and late January, when the President’s national approval ratings dipped below 60 percent for the first time since September 10, 2001, the mood among Democrats in the first primary state began to take a turn. “Democrats started to get their sea legs,” Arnesen says. “We started to realize that we weren’t necessarily nominating a sacrificial lamb, that we might be nominating the next President. Then we thought, ‘Shit, we’re in the middle of a campaign that actually matters and most of us are still in shock. We’re still searching and now, very quickly, we have to make one of the most important political choices of our lifetimes.'”
Arnesen, a former state legislator and Democratic nominee for governor who now hosts a popular radio talk show, is right when she says things are moving fast. The New Hampshire primary, once a mid-March event, is set to take place next January 27–the earliest date ever–following the Iowa caucuses eight days before. “We used to talk about the spring primaries, and that now is a joke,” says Colorado College political science professor Robert Loevy. While Bobby Kennedy did not even announce his 1968 presidential campaign until mid-March of that year, Steve Cobble, a campaign-trail veteran who helped run the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 race, says, “The way things are headed, it’s very possible the Democratic nomination will be settled by early February of 2004.” Progressives can still have an impact on the nomination fight, Cobble argues, but only if they recognize that the window for acting is rapidly closing because of schedule changes that have dramatically quickened the pace of presidential politics.
The speedup is entirely intentional. While presidential primaries in a handful of states were high-profile events in the 1950s and ’60s, it wasn’t until 1972 that control over the nomination process shifted from back-room bosses to caucus and primary voters. Party power brokers always bristled at the change, which created a process that was long, costly, frequently divisive and prone to empowering outsider candidates like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan. After Republicans collapsed their nominating process into the fast run across Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan that guaranteed the nomination for George W. Bush by late February of 2000 (at a point when Al Gore and Bill Bradley were still sifting through the wreckage of their New Hampshire duel), Democratic leaders decided that they, too, would grease the selection process in hopes of gaining more time for their candidate to shake the money tree before the fall campaign.
Early in 2002, Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe and his allies at the DNC quietly engineered a reworking of the primary and caucus schedule that all but guaranteed the fastest-starting and fastest-finishing nominating process in American political history. Rule changes implemented by the DNC moved the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary dates deep into January 2004–maintaining what Michigan Senator Carl Levin condemned as the “perpetual privilege” of those two small, overwhelmingly white and disproportionately rural states–and then cleared the way for one more “retail” primary in South Carolina, on February 3. With big states and regional clusters of smaller states expected to grab every subsequent Tuesday in February for their primaries, the surviving candidates will then find themselves locked in a high-stakes, big-money-fueled, television-and-tarmac-driven sprint. Within weeks after Iowans straggle out of their midwinter caucuses, voters will choose thousands of delegates to the Democratic National Convention.