Jewish World Review
May 2, 2007
/ 14 Iyar 5767
The primary experiment
We are already well into one of the most wide-open presidential races in history, even though it's still 19 months before the big day in 2008. This will be the first time in 80 years without an incumbent president or vice president in the primaries. But an even more critical uncertainty is the new primary calendar. It imposes a major change in our democracy that many consider reckless.
In the cycle of primaries we got used to, both Republican and Democratic candidates were effectively chosen by the end of Super Tuesday in March. Voters in states with late primaries felt they had been given short shrift. So last year, the Democrats moved two voting days-those for Nevada and South Carolina-up near the front of the line and then decreed that no other state could hold a primary before February 5.
The Republicans did the same. Hence the stampede to get to the front of the line. To date, at least 22 states have moved their primary to the first allowable date on the calendar, February 5, including nine of the big states such as California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, representing over 60 percent of Americans.
The resulting megaprimary is the opposite of the small-town-style politics characteristic of Iowa and New Hampshire. February 5 will now become Super-Duper-or Mega-Tuesday. An overall winner would most likely have a stranglehold on the nomination.
Seismic shift. What does this mean for our democracy? Nobody knows. What we do know is that this is virtually an informal constitutional amendment. To have a prayer of winning Super-Duper Tuesday, candidates are going to need full-fledged national operations cranking away by this fall. The window of opportunity for late-starting insurgents has all but closed. It will be impossible for any individual to campaign before 130 million-plus people in the one week between the South Carolina primary and Mega Tuesday. Since they can't communicate their qualifications, character, and policies to millions of people in widely scattered states, their campaigns will need more big money for the 30-second commercials that will have to substitute for handshaking and question answering. Voters will get carefully managed themes but much less in the way of policy solutions or even personality. A dark horse, even with a solid showing in one of the earlier contests, cannot prevail without an overwhelming amount of money and charisma to appeal to people in 22 states.
The voters in the big states and the whims of the big fundraisers look as if they will dominate this new process. Certainly, the old system of partial public financing, with its spending controls, is now obsolete-and so, too, is the chance for voters to see the candidates' character and endurance tested over a long period, in different states, and in different circumstances.
This does not mean the outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire are unimportant. They will still provide momentum, even to dark horses. But the megaprimary has made it harder for all but the top-tier contenders to gain enough political oxygen and money to be competitive.
If perchance no decisive result emerges from February 5, the states voting later could become the new kingmakers. Further, a fragmented result on February 5 and thereafter could even lead to a brokered convention in the summer-back to the smoke-filled rooms of the '20s!
Many believe this new system is political madness. The National Association of Secretaries of State, whose members oversee elections, has proposed that Iowa and New Hampshire go first, followed by four regional primaries every month, from March through June, with the regions to rotate their positions every four years. The purpose is to spread the primaries out and give the people a longer chance to review the candidates and to avoid the boredom of a candidate being selected nine months before the election.
The opposite view is that the megaprimary means that the candidates would be tested by much broader electorates in the major states, with their higher ratios of urban, diversified voters more representative of the country at large than, say, Iowa or New Hampshire. A man of little experience and talent, such as Jimmy Carter, would no longer emerge as his party's nominee because of success in the January Iowa primary. Again, in 2004, John Kerry effectively won the nomination with his victory over Howard Dean. And we are set to avoid the effect of the February New Hampshire primary of 2000, which ended the campaign between Al Gore and Bill Bradley, and the South Carolina primary, which ended the battle between George W. Bush and John McCain.
Everything is up in the air. The only thing that can be said for sure is that nobody can safely predict how the new process will affect the outcome.
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© 2005, Mortimer Zuckerman