Sabato's Crystal Ball

Scheduling Insanity

Why we are courting disaster in next year's presidential primaries

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics February 8th, 2007

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In 1968 the country had 14 state presidential primaries, scheduled rather sensibly and intermittently between March and June. In 2008 a minimum of 42 primaries will be held, possibly as many as 47, beginning in January, or even earlier, and stretching out for six long months.

Even worse, the ’08 schedule will be the most “front-loaded” ever, with so many contests moved into January and early February that the party nominees might be determined in the blink of an eye, with no chance for “buyer’s remorse.” In 1980 only one state had a primary or caucus by the end of February. By 2000 nine states did so, and in 2004, nineteen. Next year, an incredible thirty states are on track to push into January or February.

If the job of scheduling the presidential nominating contests were assigned to an insane asylum, this is pretty much what the patients would come up with.

Reform is much needed, but it isn’t going to happen for 2008. The system is out of control, and no entity with a national perspective is in charge–not the Congress, not the political parties. Individual states are ruling the roost, doing what they think is in their interests. The national interest is barely an afterthought.

Here is the current tentative schedule for 2008, with emphasis on the word tentative:

Date States with Primaries/Caucuses
January 14th Iowa caucuses
January 19th Nevada Democratic caucuses
January 22nd New Hampshire primary, Wyoming Republican county conventions (POSSIBLY)
January 29th South Carolina Democratic primary, South Dakota primary (POSSIBLY), Florida primary (POSSIBLY)
February 2nd South Carolina Republican primary, Oklahoma primary (POSSIBLY)
February 5th Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California (POSSIBLY), Delaware, Florida (POSSIBLY), Idaho (POSSIBLY), Illinois (POSSIBLY), Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey (POSSIBLY), New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah primaries; Nevada Republican primary; North Dakota caucuses
February 9th Louisiana Republican primary (POSSIBLY)
February 10th Maine Democratic caucuses
February 12th Tennessee, Virginia primaries
February 19th Wisconsin primary
February 26th Hawaii Democratic caucuses
March 2nd Hawaii Republican caucuses
March 4th Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont primaries; Minnesota caucuses
March 7th Colorado Democratic primary
March 11th Mississippi, Pennsylvania primaries
March 8th Wyoming Democratic caucuses (POSSIBLY)
March 11th Washington Republican primary
March 15th Alaska Democratic caucuses
March 21st Maine Republican caucuses
April 1st Kansas primary
April 15th Colorado Republican primary
May 6th Indiana primary
May 13th Nebraska, West Virginia primaries
May 20th Kentucky, Oregon primaries
May 27th Washington Democratic primary

Take a close look. Nearly half the states now appear likely to have voted by February 5th. Let that sink in. Well over a majority of the delegates will probably be selected nine months before the November general election for President.

Some effects of this rush to judgment are obvious, while others are unpredictable. We could write a book on the subject, but let’s just mention several consequences here:

We can’t conclude without an argument that there is a better way. Along with many other political scientists and observers, I have long argued for a more rational nominating system. In an essay published in the Virginia Quarterly Review last summer (CLICK HERE), I outlined a new arrangement of four regional primaries held one a month from April to July, with the nominating conventions in August. This shorter, focused campaign season would be preceded by a few contests in small states held in March. How would the regions and small states be selected? On January 1 of the election year, a lottery would be held to choose the order of the regions, and a second lottery would pick two to four states among the twenty that have four or fewer electoral votes. Finally, those ping-pong-ball lottery machines can be put to wiser use than bestowing great wealth on people who can’t handle it.

Think of the salutary results. In one stroke, we would eliminate the permanent campaign in a handful of unrepresentative states that currently, insistently, start off the presidential selection process. We would concentrate the elections in a five-month window that leads immediately to the conventions and the general election. We would allow the incumbent President to govern for three and a half years of his four-year term without would-be successors underfoot and second-guessing him daily on the campaign trail for two or more years preceding the general election. We would give every region an equal chance to go first–and every region would get that opportunity over time. And we would preserve the advantages of having small states lead off the process, without those small states always having to be Iowa and New Hampshire (and Nevada and South Carolina, if the Democrats’ plans for ’08 actually work out). Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful, but their first-in-the-nation role is not a Constitutional right, and other small states would undoubtedly take service as the early “screening committees” just as seriously.

The cynical semi-circle of your spherical Crystal Ball believes that this sensible reform will happen on a set date: The Twelfth of Never. The idealistic glimmer in the Ball is a bit more optimistic, though for a depressing reason. The 2008 schedule may actually be seen for the disaster it is, as it unfolds next year, leading to a spasm of productive reformation prior to 2012. If this be called Hope, it springs eternal.