Primary Season Has Already Passed Us By

By Marc Fisher
Published October 25th 2007 in Washington Post
Any minute now, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will head to the polls and select the presidential candidate who cooked them the best dinner and did the best job ironing their shirts.

The personal attention candidates for the highest office in the land are lavishing on citizens of those two small states -- the wannabes have made, I kid you not, at least 1,448 appearances in Iowa and 691 in New Hampshire this year alone -- contrasts rather sharply with what we get here:

Total appearances by all candidates in Virginia: 40. In Maryland: 16. And most of those were fundraisers for high rollers.

When it comes to picking the nominees for president, Virginia, Maryland and the District have about as much say as Finland.

We don't see the TV ads. We don't hear the speeches. More important, we don't get a chance to put issues that matter here onto the campaign agenda.

By the time Virginia, Maryland and the District hold their presidential primaries Feb. 12, 33 states will have selected their convention delegates. The game will be long over. And the result will be decided more by money than by any real appeal to the people. All but one of the major party nominees since 1980 have been the candidates who had raised the most cash by the end of the year before the election.

The calendar wasn't always this front-loaded. Last cycle, John Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination Feb. 17, but back in 1984, it took until June 5 for Walter Mondale to secure the prize.

Not so amazingly, participation in primary voting was considerably higher back when a presidential campaign took place in the actual year in which the election was held.

But the problem with this hopped-up campaign is not merely one of narrowed participation. It's also about what matters to people in different parts of the country. The war in Iraq tops lists of voter concerns most everywhere, but a Washington Post poll of Virginians this month found the economy in second place, whereas a slew of surveys put health care in that slot on voters' agendas nationwide. Issues such as ethics and transportation show up on the Virginia list, but not elsewhere. The current structure of presidential politics makes little concession to the existence of distinct realities in different regions.

Would today's highly packaged candidates make a greater effort to engage on tougher questions if they had to campaign in more places? Would visiting places such as Loudoun and Charles counties clue them in on the need to address development, the stresses of time-starved commuters' lives, and our decaying bonds of community? Would campaigning in Montgomery, Fairfax or the District (that'll be the day) confront candidates with the effects of rising income inequality and the crunch caused by the lack of affordable housing?

Perhaps not, but we won't know until we take the election process back from the party hacks, incumbent politicians and the campaign industry -- the consultants, TV stations and media buyers who make fortunes off an ever-more crimped democracy.

Frustrated state officials have tried to combat the hegemony of Iowa and New Hampshire by pushing their primary dates ever earlier, but this arms race helps not at all. There are all sorts of reform plans out there, including one, known as the American Plan, that would continue the tradition of starting the voting in small states, where retail politics warms hearts and truly does test candidates' spine and stamina. But the plan would then use a rotating calendar of increasingly large states, with primaries taking place every two weeks through 10 sets of votes.

The idea is to keep as many candidates as possible in the race throughout the spring of election year while forcing politicians to face voters in most regions. Who knows? A more balanced schedule might even revive the great tradition of favorite son candidates who inject regional issues and passions into the national debate.

In the meantime, the presidential nominees will probably be set long before most Americans pay the slightest attention to the candidates. All we can do in this part of the country right now is stage our own Pretend Primary. To make certain our voices are heard, we need to do this quickly. The vote will take place on my blog, Raw Fisher, at, Dec. 13. Until then, we'll gather online every Thursday to thrash out which issues the candidates should be attending to. The potential presidents won't come to us, but that shouldn't stop us. We can choose democracy even if the politicians don't play along.