Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Dude, Where's My Primary?

Matt Yglesias has a bit on the presidential nominating process, which is a subject that's crossed my mind a time or two as well. Matt semiseriously proposes a type of playoff system where two nominees would compete in each state and the winners would face off in other states until only one was left standing. The underlying theme seems to be that the current system, where one or two states end up determining the nominee before any of the rest of us get a say in the matter (other than that form of speech represented by credit card contributions to our preferred candidate(s) ), is lacking in excitement, widespread participation, and questionable decisions.

I'm not sure what the solution is, and since this is a blog and not a journal or newspaper I can think out loud and make up stuff as I go along (oh, they do that in journals and newspapers, too, oh well). Now, as everyone and their uncle knows, the primary system was instituted to give The People a voice in choosing nominees, as opposed to the process where party bigwigs and big city bosses picked nominees in smoke filled rooms.

But has the primary process accomplished that? Considering this last go around was over after NH, we may have had fewer people voting in those two caucus-primary states than would have voted on the convention floor, the old way nominees were picked. OK, I'm exaggerating. But it does give me an opening to talk about what I really want to talk about--the conventions.

As a political junky, I'd love to see the primary season be competitive up till the conventions and have the convention open without any one candidate with the necessary delegates to clinch the nomination, requiring an actual vote on the floor, and thus less attention given to the parade of speeches now that no one pays any attention to.

Of course having a competitive primary season and open nominating session at the convention has drawbacks. It creates money problems for one, as it makes it less likely for the eventual winning nominee to have the adequate cash on hand to devote to beating the other party's candidate because the money lenders have not been able to direct their resources to any one candidate. And there are some who would say a more competitive, drawn out and combative primary system would damage the eventual nominee for the general election.

All probably true to a certain degree. So we're back to square one. How do we come up with a system that ensures greater participation, is more competitive and open to divergent messages, and most importantly for all, is more interesting to us bloggers?

Interestling, however flawed the current system is with Iowa and New Hampshire hogging the spotlight, the current system doesn't actually preclude the possibility of a competitive and longer primary season and an actual battle for the nomination at the convention, if you're in to that sort of thing. It just so happens that it hasn't worked out that way very often.

But there have been exceptions. Consider 1992. Then, there was a favored son in Iowa (Harkin) and to a certain degree, in NH (Tsongas). So neither of those states were considered as critical as they turned out this year. Clinton didn't win Iowa or NH and yet hung on long enough to get to the south and to bigger states which put him over the top. So we can have an interesting, informative, and attention drawing primary season with the continued presence of Iowa and NH at the top of the batting order.

If memory serves me correctly, the assumption going into this past campaign was Iowa was Gephardt's state, Kerry had NH, and Edwards would take SC, a three way split for the first three states on the calendar. But it turned out that the Iowa electorate felt Gephardt's time had passed, and obviously even before then, the emergence of Dean as a viable and compeeling candidate prior to the Iowa vote relegated Gephardt to third of fourth string in Iowa. And we all know how it turned out from there.

So what does all this mean? What alternatives are available for the party in designing its primary nomination system? It depends on what the party and its likely contenders' goals are. As I indicated above, the front loading of the system was designed to get an early nominee, who could then soak up campaign funding and campaign in the spring without being attacked by fellow Democrats. And even though that was how it essentially came out this time, there's no certainty that even with a front loaded schedule, that the same would occur in 2008.

But there are other party goals than those of giving the eventual nominee a financial and political cushion. The party also has an interest, or at least it should, in building up state party candidates and infrastructures. With that in mind, it might be in the interest of several states to put forward "favorite son" candidates whose name recognition and other resources within a state could serve to ensure that not anyone candidate ran away with the nomination before the rest of us had a chance to contribute to the debate and selection process. Of course, this wouldn't necessarily work in all situations. But it could serve to bring heretofore unheard or not widely known voices out into the open and help sustain an interest in the local and state party figures and party apparatus. I realize that others have made similar if inchoate arguments. For example, Donna Brazille talked about this prior to the past campaign as an alternative for some candidates and states.

Which I guess brings us to talking about the 2008 campaign. Assuming the primary calendar doesn't change substantially before then, what are we likely to see? Here is the pool of potential candidates as I envision it: Edwards, Bayh, Gore, HRC, Kerry, Dean, Biden, and I'll throw in Feingold and Mark Warner as wild cards. Some of these will not run, and there will likely be some not on this list who will. If I'm missing any obvious names, let me know. But this is probably the group.

My bet is that Kerry, HRC, and Gore, should they make noises about running, will receive mixed support, leaving the field relatively open, and without a clear front runner or shoo-in winner in either Iowa or NH. But then again, neither is there anyone in this list that would make Iowa or NH a throw away state, meaning that if someone such as Bayh or Biden were to emerge for example, and should he win in Iowa, the dominos might fall, and we'd have close to a repeat of this past year. I hope that doesn't happen. I'd like to cast a meaningful vote in a primary, and maybe be motivated to sign on as a delegate and have the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote at a convention.

Send me your thoughts on campaign '08 and what sort of nomination process you'd like to see.

1 comment:

mondale/ferraro foreva! said...

Yeah, I agree that it'd be better to have a primary system that was competitive through the spring and most especially think it'd be awesome if the nominee was still undecided up to the point of the convention. Just like college football and it's bowls, the current primary system has some cool aspects (like I loved getting to go to new hampshire and have it feel like something huge was going down), but a new system with a gripping championship game as the finale would be much cooler.

Also, I think the tradeoff of having less money and time left for the eventual primary winner to use in the general election would be offset by the fact that the winner would have to fight it out for much longer, which would lead to a sharpening of messages and campaigns more important than money could buy. Kerry seemed to do his best when he was challenged by Dean, and then at the end of the general election when his back was against the wall. All that time in the middle where he was comfortable and building up the treasure seemed to only hurt.

So I like the idea of a playoff system - what about if instead of being state by state it was regional - maybe four different regions, and any candidates would first run in the region they were from, and then each regional winner would go on into the convention - maybe with a national primary right before it but the results not disclosed until the thursday night? ahh, think that could be some great drama!