alien & sedition.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
  The Primary Problem

George Will makes some good points regarding the newly-frontloaded presidential primary schedule. The Feb. 5 super tuesday isn't necessarily going to make voters in the big states any more relevant, but it is likely to give voters less chance to see how the candidates perform over time.

On the first point:
Every campaign is shaped by two scarcities - the candidate's time, and money. No candidate will have enough of either to campaign intensely, in person or even on television, in perhaps 24 states across the continent in the 22 days between Iowa (Jan. 14) and Feb. 5. As political analyst Charlie Cook says, this will raise the stakes - the free media attention, and the momentum it imparts - that will accrue to the winner or winners of the first four states (South Carolina Democrats and Republicans vote on Jan. 29 and Feb. 2, respectively). Indeed, if one person wins three or all four of those, the Feb. 5 primaries might be mere ratifying echoes rather than deciding events.
With regard to the second point: complaints about the long primary season notwithstanding, the new calendar is actually likely to compress the primary campaign into a very brief window of time late next winter. The nominees-apparent will then be left to keep themselves busy until the party conventions. It's kind of a dreadful prospect, when you think about it.

I've never been one to moan about how unusually long the American presidential campaign is compared to those in other countries. We're a big country, and the long campaign is a result of both that and of the democratization of the nomination process. Our nominees are no longer chosen in smoke-filled rooms at brokered conventions, nor are they pre-designated parliamentary leaders. They're chosen by the voters - which means they have to criss-cross the country to meet the voters. And that takes a lot of time.

Complaints about the length of the campaign season seem misguided to me. It is fair to complain about some states having more influence than others in the primary calendar - but the solution is not to create a national primary in early February. Many people have suggested some form of rotating primary calendar. This seems to make a lot more sense - and it would preserve the tradition of retail politics, which may seem to take ridiculously long, but is, after all, a solid democratic process.

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Yeah but one of the problems of a long retail politicking season seems to be how many promises, winks and nods a candidate has to make that they're going to have to break. Ethanol anyone?

Frontloading a primary will be an intriguing exercise in distilling a candidate into his or her essence, both for the candidate and for the voters.

If it doesn't work, oh well. The current system isn't alll that great anyway. Experimenting seems like fine idea.
Good point. The more you politick, the more you have to pander. It seems that the bigger, the more diverse, and the more democratic a country, the more hypocrisy its politics have to accomodate (actually, probably the same for the culture as well).

I guess that's retail hypocrisy, as opposed to the grand and simple hypocrisy of a totalitarian state.

Anyway, I'm all for experimenting, but the current situation seems to be a bunch of states rushing helter-skelter to change the calendar without giving it any real thought. Here in New York it's mostly being done as a gift to Hillary and Rudy.

Still, as you say - it'll be an interesting experiment.
The rotating regional primary concept is a non-starter. All it would do is alternate which regions of the country get to pick the nominees. It also would absolutely bar "longshot" candidates, since they would have to compete in gigantic regions. Retail politics would just die.
So maybe you keep the rotation feature but not in regional blocs. There's plenty of time to spread it out.

It seems inevitable that the first few states are going to pick the nominee, precisely because of all that free media and mojo; I can't figure a way out of that. So you might as well change it up from cycle to cycle. Though the longer the spread among primaries, the less the initial flurry should matter, anyway.
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