The ultra-front-loaded 2008 presidential primaries aren’t producing the dire outcome that many reformers feared. Instead, they’ve produced other unpleasant results that still vindicate calls for reform.
The most commonly cited nightmare is that a little-known candidate could intoxicate Iowa and New Hampshire voters and gain such momentum that he or she would wrap up a party’s nomination on Feb. 5, only to have events or disclosures cause huge (but uncorrectable) buyer’s remorse by convention time.
After several presidential cycles in which Republican and Democratic nominations were decided on Super Tuesday, this was a reasonable fear this year, as states tumbled over one another to schedule their primaries and caucuses as early as possible — 24 of them in yesterday’s “Super Duper Tuesday” events.
Instead, the Democratic nomination is far from settled and could slog on for weeks — or possibly all the way to the Denver convention. The party’s practice of awarding delegates on a proportional basis and the closeness of the contest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) ensures that plenty of public vetting will take place before a nominee is anointed.
The GOP nomination is being settled much sooner, but the presumptive winner, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), is nothing if not well-known. If he has locked up the nomination, he may need months to unify his party — and the process will be instructive to the whole electorate.
So, the problem this year is not unpleasant surprises. Rather, it is the denial of opportunity to voters in the Feb. 5 states of adequate opportunity to participate fully in the nomination process. State legislators thought they were making their states relevant by moving ahead. Instead, they made them, in many cases, irrelevant.
Look at the candidates’ schedules in the frenzied days since events in South Carolina and Florida. To cite just one example, GOP candidate Mitt Romney hopped in five days from holding several events in California on Jan. 31 to Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, Illinois, Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma, back to California and West Virginia before going back to Massachusetts to vote.
California got a day’s attention. Other states got an hour’s or less. Many got none at all, except for television buys. No opportunities to question the candidate, hear a speech, attend a rally, even glimpse him in the flesh. This obviously wasn’t just a Romney phenomenon. None of the candidates could visit all the primary states in the time allotted.
So, both political parties, state legislatures — and Congress, if necessary — need to change the system for 2012. It’s not clear that federal legislation setting the dates for party primaries in the states is constitutional, but Members of Congress can influence their parties to establish reform commissions to consider any of several ideas advanced for regional primaries to be held in March, April, May and June.
Regardless of whether activists in either of the parties experience buyer’s remorse this year, voters in many states rushing their primaries to Feb. 5 surely must be doing so. Before the memory fades, they ought to start agitating for change.