The late Rep. Mo Udall, D-Ariz., is generally credited with being the first national champion for sweeping reform of how political parties nominate presidential candidates.
Udall came to this point after narrowly losing the 1976 nomination to Jimmy Carter, with the showdown coming in April in Wisconsin. Udall later argued the staggered, incoherent scheduling of state primaries and caucuses gave an unreasonable advantage to early winners who ride a wave of momentum to victory before voters in many states ever have their say.
In hindsight, the 1976 primary season appears rational to what’s happening now.
States are rightly objecting to the undeserved kingmaker status of Iowa and New Hampshire as the first two events. The Republican and Democratic national parties failed to give other parts of the country a bigger role, so many states are jumping earlier into the schedule on their own. First there was “Super Duper Tuesday” on Feb. 5, where Arizona and several large states such as California have landed.
Then, Florida moved up to Jan. 29, despite threats from the two national parties to deny that state any seats at their 2008 conventions. Then last week, voter-rich Michigan moved its primary to Jan. 15 while Wyoming Republicans want to vote Jan. 5.
Iowa and New Hampshire refuse to be thrown off their pedestals. So there’s a good chance those states will bring their elections up to December just to stay ahead of the pack.
This merry-go-round will spin even faster for the 2012 presidential elections unless someone intervenes. Earlier primaries will force potential contenders to start campaigning sooner. Public policy decisions will become even more mired in partisan sniping around the clock. Die-hard activists might be thrilled but everyone else will throw up their hands in frustration and tune their attention instead to the latest version of “American Idol.”
We need a nomination system that respects the public’s time and provides some separation between campaign seasons, if only to protect the country’s collective sanity.
Udall and others proposed holding regional elections on four or five specific dates that combined states by geography (the Southwest, the Northeast, the upper Midwest, etc.). These ideas have floundered because individual states disputed which region they should belong to and how to decide which area would vote first.
A better answer might be to divide the country equally in four groups, with a mixture of small, medium and large states, and assign each group a nomination election date. The dates would rotate among the groups every four years so there would be no more Iowa-and-New Hampshire situations.
Regardless of the approach, the national parties must set a regional calendar that brings the whole country into the picture, and prove they can enforce it.
Otherwise, Congress should act as a referee between the states. End this escalating game of one-upmanship before it further damages the process of picking a president.