The presidential nominating process is a lot like the Bowl Championship Series that governs college football: a maddeningly clunky, irrational and outmoded system that regularly inspires calls for reform, none of which ever go anywhere.
So it’s tempting to greet the latest proposed overhaul of the Democratic primary calendar, this one authored by Florida Senator Bill Nelson, as just another in a long line of futile efforts. It’s also easy to dismiss Nelson’s maneuver as sour grapes, given his state’s black-sheep status in this year’s Democratic contest.
But what Nelson is calling for—a series of six interregional primaries between March and June, the order of which would be rotated from cycle to cycle—makes a good deal of sense. And if there was ever a time when a reform plan might actually stand a chance, this is it, with Democrats facing the very real prospect of shutting Michigan and Florida out of their convention after those states challenged the current nominating process.
The problems with the process that has prevailed for decades are easy to identify: Iowa and New Hampshire—two small, demographically homogenous states—hold disproportionate sway, essentially paring the field (and sometimes picking a nominee) before other states with more diverse populations have a chance to weigh in. Moreover, the front-loading that has resulted from dozens of states moving up their primaries for a piece of the early action places an unhealthy premium on money and the perception of momentum.
As flawed as the current system is, though, each remedy that has been proposed has issues of its own. A straight-up national primary would place an even heavier premium on money, name recognition and conventional wisdom, making it impossible for a dark-horse candidate to build credibility with a series of strong showings in manageably sized states, the way George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Gary Hart once did. Even Barack Obama, who was the underdog but hardly a dark horse when he entered this year’s race, would have stood little chance with a national primary. Remember that in the days before the Iowa caucuses, where he claimed an important victory, Obama still trailed Hillary Clinton by about 15 points in most national polls. An early win was essential to leveling the national playing field.
There is also something to be said for the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire, their absence of diversity not withstanding. Among caucus states, Iowa’s turnout is astronomical. And New Hampshire typically attracts a turnout for its primary that exceeds the general-election turnout numbers for most other states. In both states, participation in the presidential nominating process is a serious and almost sacred trust, handed down from one generation to the next. Their electorates are informed, engaged and discerning, willing to give a fair hearing to candidates who are dismissed by the national media and not easily bowled over by television ads and conventional wisdom. The sophisticated New Hampshire voter is not some empty caricature pushed by greedy Granite Staters. There is something to it.
The question is whether the electorates in other states, given a chance to play the same role that Iowa and New Hampshire have long played, would develop those same traits. If you talk to a random voter in Manchester, N.H., the summer before the primary, you’re very likely to find someone who can identify the candidates and the major issues. If, say, Oregon were to go first, the same wouldn’t necessarily be true in Medford.
But the turnout trends from this year’s post-New Hampshire primaries are instructive: Record-high participation in state after state, with no decline in interest as the process has unfolded. They may not have cared about the Clinton-Obama race in Ohio as early as they did in New Hampshire, but when their time came, Ohioans answered the call.
This is what makes Nelson’s idea intriguing, and why it represents a potentially fair meeting point between the inequities of a national primary and those of the current system. He would designate six dates between March and June for a series of interregional primaries, each composed of big and small states, with enough time in between—presumably—for significant campaigning in the upcoming batch of states. Practically speaking, this would mean there’d be about eight primaries and caucuses on each of the dates.
The scale of each primary date might be small enough to allow for the Iowa/New Hampshire effect that has propelled past longshot candidates. Perhaps the first wave of states would include one major state—say, Ohio; several midsize ones like Maryland, Alabama, Washington and Arizona; and a handful of small ones like Maine, North Dakota and Hawaii.
Obviously, the media would inflate the importance of Ohio, which would probably favor the national front-runner. But there’d be ample opportunity in the small and midsize states for lesser-known contenders to make a stand and establish viability. And as we have seen this year, voters in all of these states, even though they are unaccustomed to dealing with presidential candidates more than a year before Election Day, would probably catch on quickly.
Nelson’s idea isn’t without problems. Perhaps more dates would be necessary so that a smaller number of states could be included at the front end of the process. And it would be essential to provide a healthy mix in terms of state size, geography and demographics on each date. If one of the early clusters was tilted heavily toward one region, it could give a massive advantage to some candidates over others, much the way the presence of so many Southern contests at the start of the 1992 process provided a massive leg up to Bill Clinton.
It seems unrealistic that Iowa and New Hampshire can cling to their status for much longer. Too many states have grown jealous.
It makes sense for the Democratic Party to consider some version of Nelson’s plan. The alternatives aren’t pretty.