Why are the Democrats thinking about shaking up the presidential-election calendar? Pick a reason: you can’t woo black and Latino voters in New Hampshire and Iowa. New Hampshire and Iowa let two small states control the nation’s political future. Or, to put it bluntly: with New Hampshire and Iowa leading the way, followed breathlessly by a slew of other states, Democrats keep losing presidential elections.
The status quo will be tough to change, however. New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary status has been envied for decades, but state law — which mandates that the New Hampshire election occur one week before any other — has managed to deter potential rivals. And while angst about "frontloading" (states pushing their primaries as close as possible to the start of the new year) has been around for 20 years, the problem keeps getting worse.
So skeptics can be excused for doubting that the Democratic National Committee’s Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling — which just had its third meeting, on July 16 in Washington, DC — will do anything radical when it makes its recommendation to DNC chair Howard Dean later this year. Come 2008, Iowa and New Hampshire will go first. And long before most Americans will have begun paying attention, both presidential nominees will be decided.
Or will they? After all, at the close of the ’60s, following the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the McGovern-Fraser Commission marginalized the once-powerful party bosses and created a more democratic nominating system that granted more power to the primaries and caucuses. The GOP adopted a comparable structure shortly thereafter. (Historically, the parties have tended to follow each other’s lead on these matters, so any Democratic reforms may well have bipartisan repercussions.) Today’s Democrats are once more a deeply frustrated bunch. And nothing prompts drastic action like despair.
Among political insiders, the Democratic Party’s fondness for technical tinkering is a running joke — one that liberal commentator E.J. Dionne played up in a recent Washington Post column focused on David Price, the North Carolina congressman who co-chairs the nomination commission with former labor secretary Alexis Herman. "When the going gets tough," Dionne wrote, "the Democrats form commissions."
Point taken — but scoffing at the Price-Herman Commission, as it’s generally known, risks reinforcing the notion that the current primary framework is divinely ordained. In fact, it’s anything but. For example, New Hampshire’s primary originally occurred on the second Tuesday in March, the same day as Minnesota’s and a full week after Indiana’s. And Iowa’s political celebrity dates only from 1972, when liberal insurgent George McGovern focused on the state and finished a strong second.
Frontloading didn’t use to be a problem, either. Robert Kennedy won his biggest primary victory, in California, on June 4, 1968 — nearly three months after Lyndon Johnson won New Hampshire. But with the advent of "Super Tuesday," which steadily attracted more states and inched ever closer to the beginning of the calendar year, the rush to the front of the line began in earnest.
Iowa and New Hampshire partisans make a simple argument for the status quo (at least, for the part that concerns them): holding the first big presidential contests in two small states puts a premium on old-school retail politicking. "There are some good reasons to keep Iowa and New Hampshire first," says Kathy Sullivan, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "You have the true idea of grassroots politics. People do make a point of going out and meeting the candidates, of talking with the candidates. And the candidates are tested in a place like New Hampshire in a way they can’t be tested where it’s all done in TV ads."
Since political apathy stems from a feeling that ordinary people can’t affect the mechanisms of power, this argument has emotional appeal. But there are downsides, too. For starters, keeping Iowa and New Hampshire in their top spots year after year gives a tiny sliver of the American populace an inordinate amount of political influence. Between them, Iowa and New Hampshire have just 4.2 million of the country’s 291 million residents, according to the US Census Bureau. Moreover, those 4.2 million are a pretty homogenous bunch. The 2000 Census put Latinos and African-Americans at 12.5 and 12.3 percent of the nation’s population, respectively — but these groups are underrepresented in Iowa (2.8 and 2.1 percent) and even scarcer in New Hampshire (1.7 and 0.7 percent).
Add it all up, and even candidates who’ve fared well under the current system are hard-pressed to defend it. "I loved campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire," says Mike Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee. "Both states were very good to me, in part because I spent a lot of time campaigning there. But when you look at 50 states, when you look at the campaign as a whole, when you look at the process ... I don’t think, if we were starting all over again, we would have this kind of system."
Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who sits on the Price-Herman Commission, would like to see other states — like, say, Michigan — get a chance to set the tone in an upcoming election. But even if the Price-Herman Commission opted to mess with New Hampshire and Iowa, those states wouldn’t have to cooperate. New Hampshire, for example, could still hold its primary first, and the Democratic National Committee would have no real recourse, other than refusing to seat New Hampshire’s delegates at the party’s nominating convention. And given what holding the first primary brings to the Granite State — i.e., an abundance of prestige, and more than $250 million in total economic benefits in 2000, from ad buys to campaigners’ basic living expenses — that would be a small price to pay.
"It’s an insane system overall," says Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist and commentator. "It makes no sense, and I’ve never really found anybody who thought it did. But comprehensive reform is extremely doubtful, even if this commission recommends it. There’s too many moving parts."
A better plan?
Still, the basic premise of the Price-Herman Commission is that major reform may be necessary. So if the commission decides to act, what might it do?
The current buzz centers around creating one or more regional primaries. Implementing such a framework would be difficult; each participating state would have to give its individual assent, which would require bipartisan legislative cooperation. Still, if a specific regional plan allowed Iowa and New Hampshire to keep their privileged position, the Democratic power brokers might endorse it as a Solomonic compromise.
Even among supporters of a regional approach, though, there’s ample room for disagreement. The National Association of Secretaries of State backs a regular rotation of regional primaries, with the right to go first shifting from election to election. And many Western Democrats — including New Mexico governor and Democratic presidential contender Bill Richardson — are pushing for (surprise!) an early Western primary, which they claim could help the Democrats add votes in the Rocky Mountain region.
Not everyone thinks such changes would be prudent. "Some candidate from some region is going to be inappropriately advantaged because of a regional primary structure," says Steve Grossman, the former chair of the Massachusetts and national Democratic Parties. "If the governor of California is running, and the Western primary is first, they’ll become the frontrunner — and what does the governor of Virginia do to compete with that?" Grossman has another suggestion: four mega-primaries, each of which would bundle states from different regions together to represent one-quarter of the electorate. The contests would take place over four months, with the top spot rotating every election, thereby eliminating the frontloading problem — and, in theory, giving the candidates time to mobilize the electorate and spread the Democratic gospel. One more thing: New Hampshire and Iowa would lose their privileged positions.
"One disadvantage people have thrown out at me is, ‘Candidates would have to travel all over the country,’" Grossman says. "The answer is, this is about being president of the United States. If you want to be president, you’ve got to show that you can make it everywhere, and you’ve got to show that you can do it month after month."
It’s a compelling argument — but inertia can be a tough thing to overcome. Time will tell if the would-be Democratic reformers have the courage of their convictions.
Adam Reilly can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: July 22 - 28, 2005
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