It is happening again: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are all but deciding the Republican Party’s nominee, with GOP voters in the remaining 47 states left to rubber-stamp the judgment of the early trio.
Every four years, Republicans outside of the “holy trinity” complain that they’re effectively shut out of their party’s most important decision in most cycles; every four years, there are rumblings about changing the system, and most cycles, nothing changes other than the primary contests beginning earlier and earlier.
We should set out to organize a primary calendar that permits as many Republicans as possible to have a meaningful effect on the nominee selection process by voting. (I speak as a Republican to the lament of my party’s voters and candidate selection process, but much of this diagnosis and potential solution also applies to the Democrats.)
Some have called for a national primary, but that would bring its own set of problems. If you think the current system is prohibitively expensive and crowds out promising candidates, imagine having to run a national television advertising campaign to have any chance at all at the nomination. It would be just a larger version of our current Super Tuesday–style mega-primary days, which require candidates to campaign in as many as a dozen states in the same short period.
Super-primary days pretty much ensure that the candidate with the most funds will win because those candidates are the only ones who can afford to run ads in all of those states voting on the same day.
A state can present value to a presidential candidate in one of three ways: the number of delegates at stake (often tied to population size); the state’s chronological order in the primary calendar (a chance to make an early splash and create momentum for later contests); or ease or cost-effectiveness for campaigning (small size and short travel distances, cheap television advertising rates, etc.).
Iowa and New Hampshire are not particularly populated states — this year only 40 delegates are at stake in these two states out of 2,286. But because they’re first, they’re worth immense investments in time and money on the part of candidates.
If we wanted to balance this out so that each state offers value to a candidate, we would begin with the least-populated states, which have the fewest delegates to the GOP convention, and work our way up to the largest and most delegate-rich states. To prevent a prohibitively long and expensive 50-week primary, we would cluster the states into geographic groupings.