On the evening of January 3rd, 2008 presidential voting finally began and the results are indeed remarkable. On the Democratic side, an inspiring young senator has defeated his party's presumptive frontrunner, and on the Republican side, an affable ex-governor of Arkansas has delivered an emphatic setback to a well-funded establishment candidate. Such dramatic narratives are the great joy of political observers and this most recent race has certainly provided. However, the fact remains that only 346,000 of our fellow Americans have voted, or for the most part, caucused under arcane rules precluding onetime secret ballots, in a midwestern state featuring a population unrepresentative of the country and trending Democratic in recent presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial elections. In the space of one evening, the race's results have led one political commentator to exclaim the occurrence of not one but two political earthquakes and confirmation of one veteran campaign manager's assertion the vaunted Reagan conservative coalition has been smashed.
Such hyperbole can be expected in the aftermath of a contest much anticipated -- especially after a campaign enjoined nearly 14 months ago.
Yes, after a seemingly interminable fourteen months ago and negative attacks citing one candidate's kindergarten scribblings and the subliminal content of another candidate's Christmas commercial, the votes of 346,000 Iowans have spurred predictions heralding a new departure in American politics.
For all the valid criticisms leveled at the current state of the American presidential nomination process -- the unrepresentativeness of the first caucus and primary states, the ridiculously early and compressed schedule -- the entire cadre of practitioners, commentators, and reporters are conveniently setting them aside and examining and spinning the latest results as fantasy football fanatics would after the first round of playoffs.
The year 2008 will culminate in the election of a president who must confront the challenges of global terrorism, economic change, and the content of the American character and we continue to read the tea leaves of a process initiated and dominated less than 1 percent of the population.
The primary process should not remain static simply because underdog nominees defied expectations in early states and provided the media with a great story but did not herald the eventual nominee (McCarthy in 1968, Bush in 1980, Dole and Robertson in 1988, Tsongas in 1992, Buchanan in 1996, McCain in 2000). While early states have on occasion served up the eventual victor (Carter in 1976, Bush in 2000), certainly there has been buyer's remorse in regard to those decisions and certainly resentment of the weighted role played by the early states. While numerous reform proposals have been conceived - graduated, rotating regional, and nationwide systems -- but rejected, perhaps the following alternative should be considered.
To accommodate complaints about the size of the population, representativeness, and regionalism as well as the need to ensure dynamism from cycle to cycle, the primary schedule should follow the results of the preceding election according to the narrowest margins of victory. For example, in 1996 the margin of victory was narrowest in Kentucky, then Nevada, and then Georgia. As such, in 2000, the primary schedule would have featured Kentucky first then followed by Nevada and Georgia. Similarly, in 2000, as everyone well remembers, the narrowest margin occurred in Florida (and then New Mexico followed by Wisconsin). Again, the next primary schedule would have been Florida first, then New Mexico, then Wisconsin. Since Iowa provided the fourth narrowest margin, it would have remained an early state, but no longer the sole focus of the primary season. Finally, if 2004's results had dictated the schedule, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Ohio would have been the first five states. Again, as well remembered, Ohio was the decisive battleground in 2004 and its inclusion early in 2008 cycle would have been a welcome departure from the routine focus on Iowa and New Hampshire.
A primary season where the contests are scheduled in states with the preceding election's 10 narrowest margins, staggered every 2 weeks (see below table) backwards from Labor Day, would restore a semblance of sanity to election cycles where candidates and the media have injected themselves into the holiday season and focus on the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of states with clearly unrepresentative populations. Moreover, this proposal would add dynamism to the process and could have presented interesting alternative scenarios, at least beginning in 2004. Would Al Gore have decided to run if the first primary had been in Florida, a state that would have been a layup for him? Would Howard Dean have rocketed to frontrunner status if he delivered his antiwar message to Florida first? In 2008, the wide open dynamic in the GOP race beginning in Wisconsin could have been less impacted by the strong evangelical vote as evident in Iowa. Similarly, perhaps the strongly liberal tradition of voters in Wisconsin would have dismissed Edwards's class warfare rhetoric and made Obama's victory more clearcut.
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2000 Primary Schedule
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2004 Primary Schedule
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2008 Primary Schedule
America won't know this time but hopefully primary reform can be achieved -- after 14 months and just one vote, the race is rapidly being decided and the candidates will essentially be selected in the next six weeks and then another 10 more months of the campaign will remain.