Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Primary Season

Marc Ambinder likes how the primaries are working out.

EVERY four years, Washington moans about the way the national political parties select their presidential nominees. But the grumbling about the 2008 contest has struck an unusual note. Instead of complaining about a process that is too short, some now mutter that the process is too drawn out. Instead of being too predictable, the campaign is too confusing and uncertain: no one has any idea what will happen next. Is this any way to pick a president?

Actually, yes: the Democrats in particular appear to have stumbled — partly by design and partly by chance — into a primary calendar that fixes many of the problems with the way the party has chosen its presidential candidates in the past. Sure, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have run extraordinary campaigns. But the framework of the calendar has enriched the competition between them.

Here’s how we got here. In 2000 and 2004, the votes of white men and women in two relatively small states determined the Democratic presidential nominee.

The party’s financiers do not live in Iowa or New Hampshire. Democratic interest groups felt as if their votes and generous donations were being taken for granted. So in 2004, the chairman of the party, Terry McAuliffe, appointed a calendar commission to serve his successor, Howard Dean.

Mr. Dean’s experience as a small-state governor whose underdog presidential race had been derailed by Iowa influenced the commission. Its members decided to add two early states: Nevada, with its high population of Hispanics and its service-oriented labor unions, and South Carolina, where half the Democratic vote is black.

If Democrats in any of the remaining 46 states scheduled their contests earlier than Feb. 5, they would lose their ability to send delegations to the national convention in Denver. Mr. Dean and his committee believed that the voting in the four early states would determine a front-runner quickly — yet still ensure that the nominee had been vetted by a diverse subsection of the party.

However, the exuberance of American democracy intervened. Republicans in Michigan and Florida last year came up with the idea of moving their states’ primaries into January. Democrats in those states eagerly agreed and dared the national party to disenfranchise them — two states that were vital to the Democrats’ chance of winning the fall election.

The Democrats went ahead and enforced their rules. And because party leaders in Florida and Michigan shared the assumption that the new calendar would produce an early front-runner, they didn’t really mind. Surely the party’s nominee, decided well in advance of the convention, would seat the delegations — and Florida and Michigan, by voting early, would have had a larger say in ratifying the consensus that emerged around that nominee.

Once more, democracy has interfered with the plan. Had Michigan remained on Feb. 9 and Florida on March 4, their influence would have been considerable. Instead, their haste to go first wound up lessening their influence, rather than giving them a louder voice.

Now, an array of new states and their tens of millions of voters will find their interests well represented in this campaign: Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio and maybe even Pennsylvania, whose voters go to the polls on April 22.

Democrats in the larger states are loath to admit it, but the secret to a well-vetted nominee is a diverse gantlet of small states followed by a national primary — which is exactly what is happening this year. Smaller states help neutralize the advantages conferred by money-raising and name identification. In such a setting, the better candidates tend to rise to the top. (Of course, this logic holds for any small state, not just Iowa or New Hampshire.)

The system this year hasn’t been perfect. The party’s delegate-allocation rules are biased against candidates who win the majority of the votes, which gives underdogs too many chances to catch up. Under the rules, it would have been possible for one candidate to win more delegates on Tuesday than the other did, without winning nearly as many votes. The party doesn’t completely trust its voters to make the right decision: it even adds a layer of free-agent celebrity politicians, called superdelegates, who can vote for whomever they want.

Despite these flaws, the system drawn up by Mr. Dean and his commission is serving the Democrats well. By the time the nomination is finally won, a majority of the party’s primary voters will have had the chance to ratify, or reject, the decisions made by voters in early states.

Instead of worrying about how to fix the process, the party should try to figure out how to repeat it.

It's true, this process is much better than system where two tiny early states allows the nomination to be sown-up. It seems like it was partly just luck that we got a truly participatory contest.

Either way, we ought to alternate who goes first, even with this quasi-national primary.

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