Thursday, August 23, 2007

Now playing: Primary daze

Hardly a week has seemed to go by without one state, then another, announcing it plans to move up the date of its 2008 presidential primary or caucus. Then, if crowded too much, New Hampshire moves up its first-in-the-nation primary, and Iowa does the same with its caucus, leading to the point that the first meaningful voter action in the “2008” presidential primary campaign will actually be in late 2007.

Why are we at this point? And what will the results be?

Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the least representative-of-America states to be leading our presidential parade. Both lack major metropolitan centers and have only modest numbers of minority voters.

The Democrats tried to alleviate this somewhat, earlier this year, by moving up the date of the South Carolina primary and the Nevada caucus. The idea was that South Carolina would provide a state with significant black votes and a couple of medium-sized cities, while Nevada would offer major Hispanic votes and a strong union presence.

But, all that did was slightly lessen the tyranny of Iowa and New Hampshire, not get rid of it.

If the Democrats wanted to really start the primary campaign with two states more representative of America (I’m not sure the GOP wants that, but that’s another story), while still working with the constraints of state laws, especially in New Hampshire, the party would let those states run no more than one week ahead of the rest of the pack.

The party would then move California and Texas ahead of the rest of the pack.

Both states have a number of major urban centers; both states have diverse minority populations, not just black and Hispanic but south and east Asian as well. Both have strong farm and ranch economies, as well. California would move a more liberal state up earlier in the process as well, while Texas at least isn’t as conservative as New Hampshire.

Instead, we will again be treated to two unrepresentative states having, combined, just 1 percent of U.S. population, exercising an inordinate influence over the primary election process.

The 1988 and 1992 campaigns showed the problems here. In 1988, Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis of neighboring-state Massachusetts was able to get off to a strong and easy start in New Hampshire, only to pose for silly pictures six months later while pretending to be a tank driver. On the Republican side, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush got stunned by Pat Buchanan’s strong challenge in New Hampshire and spent much of the rest of the primary season pandering to the farthest edge of the Republican Party, and transparently so.

The problem this year will probably not be like that. Instead, if most states have moved up their primary deadlines to vote in February, or early March at the latest, both parties will have selected their candidates four-five months ahead of their conventions and six months ahead of the traditional Labor Day start to the general election.

This will lead to the two presumed nominees microfocusing their campaigns against each other. It will leave more time for one of them to potentially look like an albatross, but an albatross his or her party is stuck with.
And, because the two candidates won’t be eligible for federal campaign funds, should they take them, until after they are nominated, we will have a large window of time filled with attack ads funded by political action committees and other “soft money” groups.

Is this any way to choose a president?

Actually, maybe it is. In parliamentary systems, the party in opposition has a “shadow prime minister” in place as leader of the party outside the government, with full “shadow cabinet” in place, ready to take charge as soon as the party on the outs wins the election.

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson has promised to do something similar should he get his party’s nod. Maybe old political dogs can learn new tricks.