Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball
Export date: Mon Sep 24 14:12:54 2018 / +0000 GMT

Scheduling Insanity

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:

  • Get ready for the longest, day-in-and-day-out general election campaign in American history. Sure, your Crystal Ball and all the other pieces of the punditocracy will feed off this unexpected bounty. (We are certain to be the nexus of the country's obesity problem in 2008 as a result.) Regrettably, we may be the only part of the U.S. population to benefit from the primary madness--besides political consultants and television station owners, of course. Can anyone honestly argue that this schedule is good for the American people? One of the marvelous aspects of parliamentary systems is that their elections are concentrated in a four-to-six week window. This intense campaign period is an exclamation mark that rivets the public on the issues and personalities of the time. The election is an exciting special moment, not a grinding eternity that turns off the voters. Given our very different Constitutional structure, the United States cannot precisely mimic a parliamentary system, but we could adapt our methods to maximize interest and minimize boredom. Yet 2008 is moving us in the opposite direction.
  • It will be remarkable if at least one and possibly both parties do not have nominees by February 6th. The first four states--Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina--may create a "slingshot effect" for the quasi-national primary occurring on February 5th. If one candidate in each party has managed to win three of the four early contests, they will have dominated the headlines for the three weeks preceding the national primary. Normally, that would guarantee nearly unstoppable momentum for the first big-state round of primaries. If the frontrunners lock down most of the February 5th states, they starve their opponents of "money and mo," and it's over. However, we also acknowledge the possibility that the contenders in one or both parties will have split up the wins in the early contests, creating a muddle that might advance the contest until the next massive round of primaries on March 4th. The odds heavily favor a decision at that time. The remaining scenario seems fantastic--a tight fight all the way to the convention. Nonetheless, let's keep in mind that precisely this alternative played out for the Republicans in 1976 (Gerald Ford versus Ronald Reagan) and for the Democrats in 1984 (Walter Mondale versus Gary Hart). But if we had had the extremely frontloaded 2008 primary schedule in 1976, Gerald Ford--who won the Iowa caucus and each of the first 5 primaries--would have dispatched Reagan early. And Gary Hart, who defeated Mondale in New Hampshire, might well have been the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984.
  • Don't count on the schedule that appears in the opening paragraphs of this article. While the early start and the excessive frontloading are guaranteed, the voting order of the states is not. Various states will try end runs around party rules to get themselves in a better position. And no state will succeed like New Hampshire. The Granite State's very identity in modern times is linked to its first-in-the-nation primary. Its primary dates back to 1920, but especially since 1952 New Hampshire has been the center of the country's attention every four years. This state is not about to yield the perks and cash that come with being king of the presidential hill. Should New Hampshire jump ahead of the approved party calendar, the Republican party has threatened to discipline the state by depriving it of half of its delegates at the national convention, and the Democratic party will deprive any candidate who campaigns in a miscreant state of all the delegates he or she wins there. Why exactly would New Hampshire, or the candidates, care?First, it may just be a bluff. Will Democrats or Republicans push a swing state toward the other party by treating it badly, especially in an age where every electoral vote matters? Is this how the Democrats, in particular, will reward Granite State voters for their landslide backing of Democrats from the top to the bottom of the ticket in 2006? Will the candidates want a handful of delegates or the bumper crop of publicity that comes with winning New Hampshire? And what are a few delegates among friends, anyway? New Hampshire has a small delegation, and the nomination will very probably have been decided long before the August conclave. The Crystal Ball's money is on New Hampshire to win this brawl, and if the state holds the primary early, the leading candidates will still come. The state's Secretary of State, Bill Gardner, has statutory authority to set New Hampshire's primary date very late in the game, so as to keep it first in the roll call of primaries. If that means a primary in very early January, or even December 2007, count on it. In less than a year, the entire political community may well be spending a snowy Christmas and New Year's in New Hampshire. Well, the skiing is terrific, at least.

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 1), 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.

  1. les/VQR2006071301
Post date: 2007-02-08 00:00:00
Post date GMT: 1970-01-01 04:59:59

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