Primary Pains: Respect The Calendar Now, Fix It for 2008 Race

Posted March 19, 2003 at 5:27pm

It’s hard to imagine a Democratic presidential race without a rules fight or a credentials challenge. Since 1972, the Democratic National Committee has worked hard to reduce these internal battles by skillfully enforcing its rules and encouraging state parties to work within the current guidelines. And Democratic officials have made it clear that they will impose automatic, swift and severe sanctions — including the loss of precious delegate positions at the national convention — on those who fail to comply with those rules.

In order to avoid confrontation, the Democratic Party went out of its way to draft good delegate-selection rules that are straightforward and encourage broad voter participation by creating a level playing field for all candidates. As a member of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee, I helped the committee draft a “window” in 2002 governing the calendar for the presidential primary season; the party unanimously approved the window. The Democratic plan nearly mirrors that of the Republican Party, and the synchronized calendars help to avoid voter confusion, which has been attributed to a drop in overall voter participation in the nominating process. So it should come as no surprise to any state (or the District of Columbia or the territories) that the DNC renewed exceptions allowing Iowa and New Hampshire to hold their caucus and primary, respectively, before the nominating “window” officially opens.

While critics may argue that Iowa and New Hampshire lack the geographical diversity of Michigan or the racial diversity of D.C., party activists and voters in those two states take seriously their civic responsibility of examining the presidential candidates with fine political precision. Over the years, political observers have learned that voters take pride in attending their caucus (Iowa) or going to the polls (New Hampshire). Indeed, I have witnessed first-hand the vibrancy of the electoral process in these two states — with their hands-on-activists and savvy journalists — as they sort through and separate the good crop of candidates from the bad or poorly prepared.

The party’s decision to give both states an exemption, as well as the decision to move our window up by a month to be consistent with the GOP calendar, is causing some states primary pains. But the 2004 calendar, which is still taking shape, is flexible enough to allow some states to go earlier than they are currently slated to without brazenly violating the party’s rules. That means candidates will be free to campaign in those states that may end up voting earlier while respecting Iowa and New Hampshire’s traditional role in winnowing out the large Democratic field. Who among us can complain about the ability of voters — such as those in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and other states contemplating moving their primary or caucus — to help Democrats choose a dynamic and experienced candidate to face and defeat President Bush in the general election?

Clearly, the 2008 presidential season will bring about a different set of political circumstances and priorities. To avoid frontloading the system, both parties should work together and establish a nonpartisan commission to come up with a new process and calendar.

Some experts who continue to study these proposals believe regional primaries will alleviate some of the presidential congestion and heartburn. This proposal, championed by numerous secretaries of state, would divide the nation into four regions for the primary process. Over the next 16 years, each region would be given an opportunity to go first.

While many activists find this approach appealing, I am deeply concerned about the effects of regionalism — where presidential candidates would doubtless be tempted to appeal to regional concerns rather than to national interest. And what would prevent the nominating process from effectively ending after the first or second region had voted? Would a process where states are told that they could go first every 16 years address the concerns of those leaders who dislike the exemption granted to Iowa and New Hampshire? Would this process be any fairer than the current process implemented by the two major national parties? These are some of the concerns raised by party activists that must be addressed before embracing regional rotating primaries.

Another proposal that was considered by the two major parties would have given small states more say in the process. Again, this proposal has serious consequences and could adversely affect the primary calendar. The main objective of any reform of the process should be to allow both major parties to hold their contests on the same day and allow as many voters as possible to participate in the selection of their nominees. Some consideration must be given to allowing candidates the maximum time period to get out their message with as small and representative group of Americans as possible.

Meanwhile, it’s time to stop the fuss over the rules and allow the candidates to begin formulating their 2004 primary campaigns strategies, develop an overall message, raise money and build their name recognition. Ultimately, the first concern of Democrats should be having in place a presidential nominating calendar that leads to the selection of a viable candidate who can win in the general election against a formidable and well-financed incumbent.

Soon, the debate over the 2008 party rules will begin and the party leaders in Michigan, D.C. and other states will be in a position to make their case to be No. 1. Until then, the Democratic Party, its activists, donors and voters are doing themselves a disservice if they don’t respect the calendar and the party’s rules.

Donna Brazile is an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee and a member of its Rules and Bylaws Committee. She was the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000.