A primary problem

There might be a regional solution to the primary arms race.

Our democracy has undergone a seismic shift in the way that we choose our presidents over the last months. Some of the biggest states – like Texas, New York and California – have been moving their primaries up, lusting after the limelight and influence that an early primary or caucus has brought to states like Iowa and New Hampshire. The result is a hyper-accelerated schedule that compresses all meaningful voting into January and early February of 2008. Front-loading the primary schedule to this degree is essentially an informal constitutional amendment, and it will make it harder for dark-horse candidates with less money or name recognition to have any hope for success in today’s political landscape.

While all but the most hopeless political junkies are probably sick of the 2008 presidential campaign already, the primary system is a valuable part of the process. Watching how a candidate runs their campaign usually gives a good indication of how they’ll run their presidency, and until primary votes start being cast, we really don’t know much about how a candidate will conduct themselves under wilting pressure. For example, in 1972, Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine was considered a shoe-in for the nomination, with all the big endorsements and plenty of money. But setbacks led to blowups, and it became apparent to everyone around that Muskie had a temper that made him ill-suited to the presidency. By contrast, Sen. George McGovern was considered a long shot but great organizational skills won him the nomination. Look at 2000 for a more recent example. Then-Governor George W. Bush faced stiff opposition from Sen. John McCain, so Bush’s campaign resorted to suggesting McCain abandoned veterans, and conducted a whisper campaign in South Carolina suggesting that McCain’s adopted daughter was his out-of-wedlock interracial child. Sounds like the politics we’ve come to know from Bush and Co. over the last seven years.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has co-sponsored legislation that would create a rotating regional primary, which would have a different part of the country voting first every four years and spread each region one month apart. The four-region primary solution isn’t perfect, with a quarter of the country voting each time, but it might be the only way to stop the electoral madness and leapfrogging for influence we have going on right now.