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November 9, 2003
The System is Broken

The continuous front-loading and jockeying of state primaries has led several states to cancel presidential primaries as a waste of time and money:

Several states have moved to drop their presidential primaries next year, worried about costs in still-tight financial times and wondering if the political exercise would serve any purpose.

Some say they can't afford the millions of dollars it costs to put on an election. Others say the decisions reflect the lopsided nature of modern primaries: The front-runner gets anointed by the media and campaign donors after the first few state primaries and the rest of the primaries are formalities.

Quite frankly, it's well past time for Congress to take a hand in this process. What happens now is that presidential campaigns start up to eighteen months prior to the election, a lot of money and time gets spent, only to have candidates fall by the wayside early in the process after facing voters in a handful of low-population states (no offense, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina). By the time most of the voters get a chance to have a say, the race has been narrowed down to usually one, or in rare cases two, viable candidates. In order to combat this, states keep pushing their primary dates earlier and earlier, extending the campaign season and making the conventions two big anticlimaxes. How is democracy served by eliminating all choice for 80% of the voters?

Instead of pushing primaries earlier and earlier, Congress should set presidential primaries on a fixed date, preferably in June or July, which will then force candidates to present their visions to voters in all states. If a clear winner hasn't been selected, then the delegates at the convention can debate and eventually decide the winner. (This, by the way, is how most presidential candidates were nominated before the Media Age.) This would shorten the presidential campaign season a little, and force candidates to speak to everyone and, I hope, campaign on policy rather than sound bite.

What are the disadvantages? Here's a few I can see:

* Federal control of what is usually considered state elections
* Nominees chosen in the proverbial "smoke-filled back rooms"
* Increased cost of campaigning
* Favor incumbent presidents, when applicable
* Too much power will be consolidated into the most populous states

To me, the only real issues of the five are the first and the last, especially since I'm usually a federalist by nature. In the case of presidential elections, though, I think there is an overriding necessity of control in order to assure equal treatment of voters depending on location. (The structure wouldn't apply to other state elections, such as Congressional or Senate primaries, but there wouldn't be any reason for states not to consolidate those primaries into the same election, so there would be no additional cost, except to those states who don't have any primary at all.) For the last issue, a nationwide primary on a state-by-state basis would exactly duplicate the national election in November, and that seems to work well enough. If these states get more weight, it's because they represent more voters. You can solve that problem by not allowing winner-take-all rules for electors in the primaries, and that is up to the political parties to decide.

The fourth argument probably has some merit, although I would argue that incumbent presidents rarely face significant challenges regardless (Carter was the last one, and he wasn't going to beat Reagan whether Kennedy challenged him or not). As far as the "smoke-filled room" fear goes, that's happening now, at least in terms of funding. The money right now is lining up behind Dean, and we're still a year away from the election and months away from the primaries. Campaigning across 50 states will get expensive, no doubt, but there are options for candidates who do not get the lion's share of the early funding. Howard Dean was a dark-horse candidate who raised funds on the Internet, and now he's replaced John Kerry as the Anointed One (if he can keep his foot out of his mouth). Regional candidates could then have an impact on the nomination and therefore policy formation during the convention and afterwards, something that would probably interest the Democrats in the South.

In short, this remedy provides a broader choice of candidates to a larger share of voters and restores order and process to the nomination system, as well as infuse enthusiasm into what has been a fairly apathetic process outside of the first ten states to hold primaries. If Primary Day were set far enough into the year, it could shorten up the main presidential campaign and force the eventual nominees to become more efficient. It has to be an improvement over what we have now.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 9, 2003 5:04 PM

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