The state of New York has just officially moved their presidential primary up to February 5, 2008; jumping on the bandwagon of several other states to create what pundits are now calling "Super-Duper Tuesday" (I refuse to use this silly term, so I will henceforth refer to it as "SDT"). Ten states are now set to vote on February 5, and as many as 20 others are considering doing the same. While the mainstream media will doubtlessly obsess over which candidates this will help and which it will hurt, there's a bigger question to be asked: is this a good thing or a bad thing for the American presidential election process? And if it does turn out to be a trend for the worse, how can we do better?
Of course, there's no way to accurately predict how it will play out, since this will be the first time it happens. There is no track record to compare it to. Which is why conventional wisdom on the subject may be dead wrong.
The talking point currently making the rounds is that this de facto "national primary" means that the only candidates who will be able to compete will be those with the big, big money behind them. This may be true, but then again, it may not.
First, consider the primary schedule as it currently stands:
1/14/08 -- Iowa caucuses
1/19 -- Nevada caucuses
1/22 -- New Hampshire primary
1/29 -- South Carolina primary
2/5 -- "SDT" for the following states: AL, AZ, AR, CA, DE, MO, NJ, NY, OK, UT (...and possibly as many as 20 others)
This means the entire primary campaign will probably be over three weeks after it (officially) begins. This sounds drastic, but while (in the dim and distant past) the primary season was as long as six or seven months, this frontloading trend has been growing during the past few election cycles. In 2004 we had "Super Tuesday" on March 2, when ten states voted on the same day. From the Iowa caucus (1/19/04) to Super Tuesday took only six weeks, during which a total of 29 states voted.
And remember, John Kerry had virtually sewn up the Democratic nomination before Super Tuesday even happened. If John Edwards had made the best comeback of all time and swept Super Tuesday, the race would have continued (but as it turned out, Edwards conceded the race right after Super Tuesday).
Examining the three crucial weeks of the 2008 race, consider the following scenarios:
(A) The conventional wisdom scenario. Three frontrunners go into the first four primaries and caucuses, and one of them dominates (or they split the victories). Heading into SDT, few candidates have enough money to afford television advertising in so many big states, and the results from SDT crown a victor from among the big-money frontrunners.
(B) The dominoes theory. One candidate (with less money than the frontrunners) concentrates all their time and energy on the first four states, while the frontrunners are busy spending massive amounts of their war chests on the SDT states. This scrappy candidate astounds the punditocracy by winning three of these states, and placing second (or even third) in the fourth state. This creates such an enormous wave of free nationwide publicity (as the candidate is extensively interviewed on every national news show known to mankind) that it generates its own momentum for SDT. People in the SDT states become so sick and tired of the endless TV ads run by frontrunners that the voters decide en masse to vote against them, in disgust. The winner of the early primaries reaps their votes and emerges from SDT as the presumptive nominee.
(C) The late entry. Someone with national name recognition jumps into the race at the last minute (Fall '07). This is really a variation of the previous scenario, since they wouldn't have time to raise as much money as the frontrunners, and would count on voter disillusionment with the frontrunners to ride a wave of change through the first four states and SDT. This is a real possibility from both parties this year, although whether it is possible to jump in late and still win enough votes is an untested concept in our new frontloaded primary situation.
(D) The "real convention" scenario. Results from the first four states are inconclusive, splitting between three (or even four) candidates, meaning no candidate can proclaim themselves the clear winner. Reflecting this mood across the country, SDT results are also split -- perhaps narrowing the field from four to three, or from three to two. This would turn conventional wisdom on its head, since then the later primaries become the important ones. And if three candidates are still in the race, there may even be no clear-cut nominee at the end of the process. If no candidate wins an outright majority of delegates to the convention, we may even have a real convention that actually actively nominates a candidate (gasp!). This would really shock the chattering classes in the media, although it has to be said they'd enjoy the heck out of it (they do love a good fight). If we go to the convention with no nominee, absolutely anything could happen.
It should be pointed out that any of these scenarios could happen in either party in 2008. The names change, but the scenarios don't. In scenario (A), Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama may be the Democratic nominee early next February; as could Rudy Giuliani or John McCain on the Republican side.
John Edwards is heavily betting on scenario (B), and Mitt Romney may find that it is his best shot as well. Edwards is actually out-polling both Clinton and Obama in Iowa and still polling well in New Hampshire, facts the mainstream media are conveniently ignoring for now. He's also done a lot of work courting the Nevada union vote, and he already won South Carolina back in 2004, so he could conceivably come out of the early four states as the frontrunner.
The people who could jump in late, as in scenario (C), are well known on both sides of the aisle: Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, and Fred Thompson. All three could easily jump to frontrunner status just by announcing their candidacy, since they're all currently polling extremely well -- before they've even announced. And all three are reportedly considering jumping in to the race... very late in the game.
Of course, while (D) would be the most interesting thing to happen in American politics in decades, it would require two or three evenly-matched candidates making it all the way to the convention -- which is a real longshot (for many reasons). It sure would be fun, though, to get a glimpse of a real convention fight for a change, instead of watching the usual four-day pep rally the conventions have devolved into.
While many have commented on 2008 being the first presidential campaign in over 50 years not to have an "heir apparent" on either side (i.e., a sitting President or Vice President on the ticket), it is also emerging as a unique test of this new concept of a "national primary."
It may even be a unique general election, as well. Maryland's governor just made the news for being the first to sign into law a concept that is being pushed in multiple statehouses around the country: an effective end-run around the electoral college. The law dictates that the state's electoral college voters will all cast their votes for the candidate who wins the popular vote -- not just in that state, but across the entire country. The law doesn't go into effect until enough states to provide a majority of electoral votes (270) also enact exactly the same law. This would, in effect, spit in the face of the electoral college system -- without the need to change it via a constitutional amendment. If it passes in enough states, we will have a whole new electoral map for 2008.
In both these cases (the primaries and the general election) the argument against doing it the "new way" is the same: candidates will ignore the smaller states and go after the heavily-populated states instead. Candidates will spend all their time, attention, and advertising money in New York, California, Texas, and the other giants on the national stage; and will hence ignore South Dakota, Wyoming, and Maine. Whether this particular bit of conventional wisdom will prove to be true or not will be one of the most interesting results from the 2008 election cycle.
Whatever happens, some folks will be happy with the results, and others will not. That's a certainty. What may come out of these experiments is a push afterwards to lessen the chaos by instituting some intelligent presidential election reforms. There are many good proposals to do this, but two of the most sensible directly address the primary calendar problems.
The first I have previously written about. It was proposed by Jimmy Carter and James Baker in their blue-ribbon commission report on elections. It essentially says: let the early states continue to go first; but instead of having one national primary, divide the country into four regions. All the states in each region would vote on the same day, and each region would vote about a month apart. Whichever region goes first in each election would rotate to the back of the line for the next election, cycling all the regions into first place (once every four elections).
The second idea would be to just give up and have a national primary. Again, give the front four their unique status, but then have all the other 46 states vote in early February (or pick a different date to lengthen the process somewhat). But to make the system fair, force all the national television networks to give free prime-time nationally-broadcast advertising to all the candidates in the race. Not just the frontrunners, and not just the Democrats and Republicans. By forcing the networks (via the FCC and the FEC) to offer this free ad time to all -- say, for three months prior to both the primary and general elections -- our democracy will be strengthened by voters hearing more voices than we normally do, and it would remove the necessity of raising a half-trillion dollars to run a presidential campaign (television advertising is the lion's share of the money currently spent on campaigns). In one fell swoop, you solve the campaign financing problems, and voters get to hear fringe candidates as well (OK, set the bar at "any candidate who can get on all 50 state ballots," in order to weed out the fring-i-est).
The real stumbling block to both of these plans is that it may be impossible to get all the states to agree, so it may require "nationalizing" elections. This would mean the federal government dictating terms not just to the state governments, but also to all the party organizations in each state as well. There would be massive resistance from both. Fundamental changes to elections aren't something that the status quo enjoys contemplating.
But perhaps they can be convinced to apply some commonsense ideas to the process of presidential elections after watching such a tight three-week primary circus in 2008. Perhaps enough politicians will start to think that the current "Wild West" system of letting each state do what it pleases just isn't working.
One can only hope.
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