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Sunday Forum: Back Load the Primaries

Here’s one way to improve our presidential nominating process and end the ugly scramble among the states to gain influence, offered by ALEXANDER P. LAMIS and RENEE M. LAMIS Sunday, October 14, 2007

The vigorous jockeying among the states to move earlier and earlier in the 2008 presidential nomination process demonstrates that the system is seriously flawed and ought to be revamped.

The unprecedented decision of a score of states to move the selection of their delegates to a single, early date — Tuesday, Feb. 5 — is a logical reaction to defects in the post-1968 “reforms.”
The same is true of the even bolder attempt by Florida and Michigan to defy party rules and encroach on the first-in-the-nation status of Iowa and New Hampshire.
This audacious move suffered a serious setback when national Democrats ruled recently that any delegation selected prior to Feb. 5 would not be seated at their August convention, except for those granted special status — Iowa, New Hampshire and two states added for the 2008 cycle, Nevada and South Carolina. All major Democratic presidential candidates signed a pledge not to campaign in “rogue” states.

Despite the indecorous nature of the scramble to be first, the efforts to challenge the status quo could lead to substantial reform of a defective process. Why should the voters and politicians in our most populous states acquiesce to a nomination process that effectively ends before their states weigh in?

A quick look at the evolution of the nomination process explains how we arrived at the current, contentious situation.

The old system vested nominations in the hands of party leaders who met every four years at their national conventions. Typical were Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth-ballot nomination in 1932 and Wendell Willkie’s sixth-ballot victory in 1940.

Rule changes following the divisive 1968 Democratic convention spawned a proliferation of primaries, accelerating the movement of decision-making away from party leaders and toward voters in party primaries.

So far so good. Unfortunately, the “reformed” system has itself undergone a transformation that has undermined the role of voters, except for those in the states that vote first. This front-loaded and compressed process produces de facto nominees before most citizens have a chance to participate.

The problem started in the mid-1980s when Southern states created a quasi-regional primary by moving their contests to the same, early date. It grew in 1996 when New England states copied the Southerners and California politicians, miffed at the irrelevance of their June primary, moved it to late March, prompting New York to hold its primary in early March.

In the 1996 Republican contest, three-quarters of the convention delegates were chosen by the seventh week of the primaries. In 1976 the three-quarter mark hadn’t been reached until the 14th week!

The situation eased slightly in 2000 but front-loading came roaring back in 2004. Just five weeks and a day after the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic contest ended when Sen. John Edwards conceded to Sen. John Kerry, dropping out a day after Super Tuesday on March 2, when more than half of the delegates needed to win the nomination were selected.

By that time, the bulk of the candidates already had quit, reducing the choices even for Super Tuesday voters to only two serious contenders. Tens of millions of voters in 21 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey, had yet to be heard from.

The 2004 schedule was so compressed that there was just a week between New Hampshire and seven primaries on Feb. 3. Imagine campaigning in seven states in seven days just as the process is starting! Multiply by three and that’s what is planned for next year’s Mega Tuesday primaries.
What is needed is to “back load” the selection of delegates. We propose a four-month process, running from Feb. 1 to June 1, starting with smaller states (in terms of population) and ending with larger ones.

The four-month period would begin slowly with one or two small- to medium-size states holding events every week through March. Then the larger states would go weekly through May, with a mixture of the remaining smaller states participating toward the end. The goal would be to have 15 percent of the delegates chosen in February, 25 percent each in March and April, and the final 35 percent in May.

How would the states be chosen? The only fair way is by a lottery to determine the region from which the first small states would come as well as their order. Then, the regions would be rotated every four years through a sixteen-year cycle to give all the smaller states in the country a chance to go first.

Is such a system practical? Absolutely. The major parties have the power to exclude from their conventions delegates not chosen according to their rules. State legislatures would be forced to comply or risk denying their citizens a role in the process.
Would Iowa and New Hampshire like this reform? Of course not. But why should they have so much clout and attention every four years?

The most persuasive argument in favor of having Iowa and New Hampshire go first is that they are small states, allowing candidates without much money an opportunity to get their messages across through personal campaigning. In our reform, by starting with smaller states and rotating them every four years, you keep this small-size advantage, but you allow all such states a chance to share in the limelight.

Our scheme also would space out the early contests, making it more likely that voters in later states have a say and that potential nominees are more fully tested. This would remedy the current system’s inexorable rush to judgment propelled by the media momentum that the early results generate.

The one good thing about the unseemly struggle among the states to go first in 2008 is that it might force wholesale change by highlighting the faults of the current system. Even wider demand for reform is likely this spring after voters experience first-hand the rapid-fire nomination cycle coming their way.

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