Raucous system seems immune to change

By Matt Stearns
Published September 26th 2007 in San Francisco Chronicle
WASHINGTON -- Florida's defiant decision to hold its presidential primary weeks earlier than both national parties dictate highlights one inescapable fact: There's no easy fix for this mess of a presidential nominating system.

Parties set rules and dates, but self-interested states ignore them with little fear of meaningful consequence or much concern for the national interest. Would-be reformers tout a variety of fixes, which the states find lacking. Congress suggests that it might step in, but the Constitution might not allow it.

"States are tripping over each other to get to the front lines, and most of them are operating within the rules of the parties," said Ryan O'Donnell, spokesman for FairVote, a non-partisan electoral-change advocacy group. "Clearly, the parties are failing to control the process."

The problems of the current primary-and-caucus nomination game are well documented: It's too fast, too expensive and each election cycle is accelerating the absurdity. Plus, Iowa and New Hampshire, two idiosyncratic early-voting powerhouses that barely reflect the rest of the country, play an outsized role in this electoral Survivor.

The still-unsettled 2008 primary schedule is the worst one yet: With states leapfrogging one another to gain influence and attention, neither Iowa nor New Hampshire has formally scheduled its vote, which both states are determined will remain first and second, come what may.

This chaotic system encourages states to jockey for position and leads to overcrowded primary days, forcing campaigns to rely on barrages of negative ads, expensive television buys and quick fly-ins rather than engaging in substantive discussions with voters one state at a time over many months.

To be sure, national Democratic Party leaders stripped Florida of its convention delegates for moving its primary to Jan. 29, and Republicans took away half the state's delegates. The parties have threatened to do the same to an itchy Michigan, which is eyeing Jan. 15.

But that's hollow punishment: The delegates could be reinstated at the conventions, and states are betting that no party will want to anger activists in large swing states.

The nominations of both parties might well be decided by Feb. 5, "Super Duper Tuesday," when at least 19 states will hold primaries. (Kentucky's Presidential Preference Primary Election will be May 20, 2008)

"The presidential nominating process is too important to our democracy to allow the pell-mell scramble to continue," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at a recent Senate hearing on overhauling the process. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., likened the system to allowing ESPN's SportsCenter to name the Super Bowl participants after two preseason games.

Congress is considering a bill that would rotate regional primaries each election cycle while preserving the early-voting status of Iowa and New Hampshire. Other proposals include variations on the regional system, as well as the so-called "Delaware plan," which would give less-populated states the early primaries, with later votes moving progressively to more populated states.

There's little new under the sun: Over the past century, Congress has considered more than 300 bills that would regulate the presidential nominating system.

But the Constitution limits Congress's role in the presidential election to setting the date of the national election. And the basic tenets of federalism make it unclear whether Congress could force states to hold presidential primaries when it wants them to. Plus, political parties generally are considered private entities whose workings are protected by the First Amendment's right of free association.

Even if the courts allowed congressional intervention, members of Congress probably would be tempted to tamper with the system every four years to aid allies, hurt opponents or empower regions, noted Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Nothing prevents the parties from adopting any new plan on their own. But as Florida is showing, there's no clear deterrent for rule-breakers. And states' interests are hard to beat back: Republicans considered adopting the Delaware plan in 2000, but the effort was defeated by large states that feared their primaries would become meaningless.

Democrats tried to make the system more equitable for 2008, but adding Nevada and South Carolina to the early-voting states only caused a backlash among states left out, O'Donnell said.

Sanctions against Florida and Michigan for moving their primaries are "a step in the right direction," said Tova Wang, a fellow who's studied election issues for The Century Foundation, a left-leaning public-policy research group. "In the past, (the parties) tried to set up rules, and they've often caved in the end."

Still, lacking "wholesale change ... it's going to continue to be constantly this competition between states to jump to the front, unless there's some overall strategic plan," Wang said. "This ad hoc approach isn't working."

The Democratic National Committee agrees that a better way is needed, but spokeswoman Stacie Paxton said it must be bipartisan to succeed and should preserve the parties' prerogatives. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson said the GOP reviewed its rules and processes every four years and saw no need to change that approach.

Sabato said effective change required boldness: In his new book, A More Perfect Constitution, he calls for several amendments to the Constitution, including a rotating, regional-based presidential nominating system.

"It's the most obvious need in constitutional revision," Sabato said. "If you don't get it in the Constitution, it'll never work. ... It's filling a gap left by the founders, because they didn't believe in political parties and they didn't believe in mass politics."