(I come at this from about the opposite direction, but I think it will make for some good discussion. – promoted by blogswarm)
I wrote this for today’s Beyond Chron. I’m sure many folks here will disagree.
Several months ago, I opposed moving California’s Presidential primary to February 5th because (a) there’s no guarantee it will give us major influence in picking the next President, (b) it will front-load the primary schedule so that lesser-funded candidates have no chance in hell, and (c) California would be a “magnet” for other states to have an early primary – creating a primary season that starts early and ends early. Now Florida has snuck ahead by pushing its primary to January 29th, despite sanctions from both national parties that the Sunshine State will get fewer delegates at the national conventions. South Carolina is furious because Florida has jinxed its game, and now New Hampshire plans to exercise its God-given right of “always being first” by pushing its primary back to December – almost a year before the general election. While it’s easy to get mad at Florida for crashing the party (and who doesn’t hate Florida when it comes to Presidential elections?), California and 24 other states have no one to blame but themselves for this fiasco when they pushed up their primaries to February 5th.
There are many good reasons for giving California more of a voice in selecting our presidential nominees. We’re the largest and most diverse state in the union, but because we’re a solid blue state we are pretty much irrelevant in the general election. Presidential candidates love coming here to raise gobs of money, but they don’t talk to voters because the nominees are always decided by the time California’s primary comes around.
But when California unilaterally pushed its primary to February 5th, a lot of other states had the same idea. As of this writing, California will vote on the same day as New York, Texas, Illinois, Oklahoma, North Dakota, New Mexico, Missouri, Delaware, Arizona, Michigan, Tennessee, Utah, Rhode Island, Georgia, Connecticut, Kansas, Alaska, Colorado, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Oregon, Arkansas, Alabama and New Jersey – just three weeks after the Iowa caucus and two weeks after the New Hampshire primary. Forget the “Super Tuesday” primary – now it’s “Super Duper Tuesday on Steroids.”
Why February 5th? Because the Democratic National Committee, in a feeble attempt to “control” a chaotic primary schedule where every state wants to have the most impact, set up some ground rules about when states could have their primary. Iowa will have its first caucus on January 14th, followed by Nevada on January 19th. New Hampshire will still have its first-in-the-nation primary on January 22nd, followed by South Carolina on January 29th. No other state could go before February 5th – or else get penalized with fewer delegates at the national convention.
But along came Florida who (like 25 other states) had decided to move up its primary to February 5th. Sensing that it will get drowned into oblivion by sharing its primary on such a crowded day, the Florida legislature unanimously voted this week to push up its primary a week earlier to January 29th – on the same day as South Carolina. Just like California, Florida has argued that a big, diverse state should have more of an impact in picking the presidential nominees.
And getting fewer delegates at the convention is a small price to pay, they concluded. “At the convention, people get invited to a big party where they drop a balloon and wear funny hats,” said Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio. “But they don’t have any role to play.” Which is true – delegates at the National Convention don’t get to decide who is the party nominee. The states who have the earliest primary get that privilege.
Naturally, South Carolina went berserk. “South Carolina will name a date that keeps us first in the South,” said state Republican chairman Katon Dawson. “It could be as early as Halloween, and our own version of trick-or-treat, if we have to.” Meanwhile, New Hampshire has a law that requires it to be the first primary in the nation – and its Secretary of State has said that they will move up their primary before any other state, going back into 2007 if necessary. At this rate, the nomination could decided by Christmas and California’s February 5th primary will be irrelevant.
None of which is healthy for democracy. We’re still more than eighteen months away from the next Presidential election, and already candidates are raising obscene amounts of money – while those who can’t compete are dropping out. Ending the primary season by February 5th is also not good, because it then leaves a nine-month period before the general election. Voters get bombarded with information, and eventually lose interest.
In contrast, France just had their presidential election – with only a two-week gap between the first and second rounds (i.e., primary and general elections.) Having a smaller window of time makes the general election more interesting for the casual voter. While we bemoan low voter turnout in this country, France had an 86% turnout in a race that was decided by only six points.
Some have argued that if all the states are moving up their primary to February 5th, why not simply have a “national primary” so no state gets an unfair advantage? But if so, why does a national primary have to be nine months before the general election? If we’re going to have a national primary, it makes more sense to shorten the amount of campaigning and bring it closer to the general.
But hasn’t California already benefited from an early primary? After all, practically every candidate was at the state Democratic Convention two weeks ago – highlighting the importance that our state will have in picking the next President. Not really. In 2003, when we had a later presidential primary, all the major candidates came to Convention anyway. I doubt the candidates would have ignored the convention if we hadn’t moved up our primary.
Which brings us back to Florida’s mischief. Twenty-five states – including California – have sabotaged themselves in a vain effort to get “more attention” in the presidential primary by moving up earlier that they will end up getting no attention. So Florida got clever and decided to move it up sooner. It’s easy for everyone to get mad at Florida, but let’s get real – they figured out what a sham this system is, and decided to game it to their own advantage.
It didn’t use to be that way. In the 1970’s (and even the 1980’s), presidential primaries were more drawn out so that a grass-roots candidate with low name-recognition could steadily pick up support and win the nomination. Jimmy Carter would have never won the Democratic presidential nomination under today’s front-loaded schedule. As I’ve argued before, we’re never going to clear up this madness until the national parties set a schedule of state primaries that is drawn out, fair to big and small states alike, and allows everyone to have a meaningful impact in the nomination.
There is a potential solution – the American Plan. Created by S.F. State Professor Tom Gangale, the American Plan would stretch out the primary schedule over several months, with a randomly selected number of states holding primaries every two weeks. This would allow a marathon – rather than a sprint – of presidential primaries that avoids front-loading and gives every state a fair shot.
The Democratic Party likes the American Plan, and is looking at implementing it for the 2012 election cycle. That’s great, but I think it should be put into effect for 2008. But when talking to members of the D.N.C., they told me that trying to use it for the upcoming cycle “could cause pandemonium” as states will not be prepared for a completely new primary election schedule on such short notice.
But it sounds like we have chaos already. And Florida’s just proven how insanely broken the system is.
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