Here they go again: Primary madness is upon us

Once again, states jockey for position, to the detriment of the process

October 05, 2011|By Jules Witcover

Will they ever learn? That's a legitimate question to ask about the political operatives in the states that again are playing musical chairs with the dates for the 2012 presidential primaries and caucuses to pick the Republican nominee.

In a rush to have a significant say in the selection, and to draw the heavy news media coverage that accrues to the earliest-voting states, these operatives are once again undercutting a sensible plan to slow down and stretch out the important process of choosing presidential candidates.

Four years after both parties moved their delegate-selecting events to the brink of the Christmas holidays in Iowa, traditionally the first caucus state on the calendar, the same thing is happening again. This time the rush is being caused by Florida Republicans determined to get into the early 2012 action by moving their primary to Jan. 31.

That move, in turn, will prod Iowa to hold its caucuses again before the holiday decorations come down, with actual campaigning going on in December or sooner. The same will happen in New Hampshire, which always holds the first primary — a social and cultural as well as political institution in that state.

The move is in violation of a deal set more than four years ago whereby the two traditional kickoff states in the process — Iowa among the caucus states and New Hampshire among those holding primaries — would continue to lead the parade, followed by the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary.

These four states, chosen ostensibly to provide regional balance to the opening round of presidential nomination contests, were designated by the two major parties to be "outside the window" of the remaining calendar on which all the other states were to hold their contests, ending in June 2012.

This scheme was designed to incorporate the lessons of past experience, when the various elections were jammed together so closely in the first quarter of the presidential year that neither candidates nor voters could catch their breath and assess what was going on from week to week.

But the appeal of "going early" in January not only led to crowding the window but also to the creation of a monster Super Tuesday right outside it. A host of states, large and small, collectively awarded so many convention delegates on that one day that it amounted to a national primary in the month of February.

A more sensible approach would have been to spread the delegate-selecting season throughout the spring, with weeks between the contests in the larger and decisive states. Such a schedule would allow the candidates ample time to make their cases in each state, give voters time to get a good reading of them, and allow political analysts to sort it all out responsibly for the voters.

Before the proliferation of state caucuses and primaries that exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, presidential hopefuls competed only in a handful of states stretched out over that longer period, to their advantage and that of the voters. It was true that fewer states drew candidates campaigning in person, but the slower pace made for less frenzied travel and longer exposure in each state visited. Television coverage provided national exposure to the candidates wherever they happened to be.

One result of the subsequent "front-loading" of the caucuses and primaries into the winter months of the presidential year was a dizzying sprint wearing on everybody concerned, as opposed to the earlier marathon in which the public judgment could be reserved until later in the pre-convention period. One constructive scheme was to urge the largest states with the most convention delegates to hold their events in May or June, thus enhancing the prospect that no candidate would corral enough to clinch the nomination so early.

One result of the front-loading has been that the national conventions have turned into coronations, with the selection of the nominee decided or apparent well before the delegates meet. The excitement of multiple roll calls is a thing of the past. But politicians are not known for sentimentality, and so we will be condemned once again to presidential caucus and primary madness next January.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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