Q&A: Ryan O'Donnell
By Jessica Taylor
Published November 1st 2007 in National Journal
In response to the controversies, FairVote -- a nonprofit election reform think tank in Takoma Park, Md. -- has been spearheading a coalition to discuss and debate several proposals designed to change the way U.S. primaries are scheduled. "Fix The Primaries" is led by Ryan O'Donnell, the director of FairVote's presidential elections reform program.
In a recent interview with NationalJournal.com's Jessica Taylor, O'Donnell discussed how early primaries could impact the 2008 elections and outlined proposals to revamp the calendar before 2012. Edited excerpts follow. For previous Insider Interviews, click here.
Q: This year's presidential primaries are earlier than ever before. How did we get to this point, with states trying to leapfrog each other to be first and such a long general election campaign?
O'Donnell: The first thing to understand is that the front-loading has been happening every cycle anyway. Every year, more and more states move up. Iowa and New Hampshire have moved earlier and earlier each time, so it's a continuation of that process.
I think after the power of Iowa and New Hampshire was really on display in 2004 with John Kerry, who no one really thought was going to win but suddenly surged after he won those states, I think maybe that spooked people a little bit. So the Democrats started to modify their schedule, and they put Nevada and South Carolina up. And I think that prompted a lot of other states to ask, "Where's our influence?" And so, one by one, they began to move as early as they possibly could, to February 5. So now we have almost half the states on February 5. I think that's the genesis of it.
Q: Do you think that both parties holding competitive primaries has contributed to the problems we're seeing?
O'Donnell: Sure, because it's an important election. If you don't have a say in who becomes your nominee, you miss out -- and you may miss out for eight years, because oftentimes one party or the other doesn't have a competitive election.
Q: What are some implications of front-loading on our electoral process?
O'Donnell: We've never seen it to this degree, so we're not exactly sure what's going to happen. But a lot of people suspect that, for example, the people with the biggest bank accounts will do the best on February 5. And so everyone else who can't compete past New Hampshire will be just shut out because they won't have the money to compete in 20 states at once. It affects who can play in the election. One thing we're seeing that's interesting is that it's triggering battles within the parties themselves.
Q: But these states still see themselves as benefiting from holding early primaries even though they might not get to send delegates to the conventions?
O'Donnell: There's no question that the important thing is media attention, not delegates. Every single state, without exception, is willing to pay the price of losing half or all of its delegates in return for having some real influence, and that's understandable.
The question at this point is can the parties actually control this process. It really seems like they can't, like they've just totally lost control. It's really the state parties that have the power to regulate this in conjunction with the legislatures. And so this system of disincentives and penalties just doesn't seem to be working because none of the states see incentives. There is nothing in place that encourages states to get along, because no one really believes that eventually they'll have a fair shot. If they did believe that, they might be willing to adhere to a rational schedule, but that's all falling apart.
Q: Do you think the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee will go through with their threats to allow no delegates from certain states or to cut delegates?
O'Donnell: I would be skeptical. I think to a certain degree the nominee controls the conventions. No Democrat or Republican wants to dis Florida. And there's just no benefit after you're nominated to withholding delegates. And I would be skeptical that it would be done because it hasn't controlled the process and put the states in line. So if it's failed, then why withhold the delegates?
Q: What are the disadvantages of such a long general election campaign?
O'Donnell: The conventional wisdom is that it encourages negative attacks really early on and as it keeps going people just start to tune out. It's like politics as usual without any real debate. It drives up the cost of campaigns, and it's just kind of a farce. I guess the real question is, why can't we just do it rationally? Why can't we have a primary season that encourages deliberation and a general election season of a length that doesn't make us sick?
Q: Iowa and New Hampshire both say that they've historically always been first. Do you see them as retaining this in 2012?
O'Donnell: Bill Richardson was quoted as saying that he believes the scheduling of Iowa was an act of God, which is kind of an outrageous claim. So there are people who are very intent on that being the case. The chaos that we're seeing is unprecedented. And I hope it gets to the point where it's so bad that people have no choice but to embrace a fundamental overhaul of the system. And that's what it will take, because New Hampshire has a law saying it has to be the first, before any other similar contest. I think we're going to see the pressure build this time to such a point where change is possible for 2012.
Q: Tell me about the different reform plans.
O'Donnell: Some people just want a national primary and think it's fair for all states to go on the same day. That, again, sort of helps out the candidates who can raise a lot of money. It discourages regional focus. It takes away retail politicking and door-to-door campaigning. All those things like retail politicking and so on are good, and we want to preserve that, and other plans do that by starting with small states and gradually working up to bigger states, and not having those states be the same the whole time, not having it just be Iowa and New Hampshire each time.
FairVote backs something called the American Plan, which is similar to the Delaware Plan that the Republican Party almost adopted in 2000. It starts with groups of small states and spaces them evenly, so we know how long the campaign season is going to be. There's none of this strategic second-guessing... It helps candidates who don't have Michael Bloomberg-sized bank accounts. It gets candidates in people's living rooms as well as on the airwaves. And it's a sane, rational process.
People sometimes back a rotating regional plan. The National Association of Secretaries of State has done that. [Minnesota Sen.] Amy Klobuchar [D] and [Tennessee Sen.] Lamar Alexander [R] and [Connecticut Sen.] Joe Lieberman [I/D] have a bill to do that in the Senate. The problem with it is that when each of those regions votes, the biggest state in there will dominate every time. And like we just talked about, sometimes it's the case that your party may not have a meaningful nomination contest at all. So if you've waited on all the regions to cycle though and it's your turn again, you may, depending on what party you're in, miss the boat and have to wait another four years.
Q: Where do you see the best way toward reform coming from? Should the RNC and DNC make a move, or should some sort of reform effort come from Congress?
O'Donnell: What we need is a congressional commission that's bipartisan to take a comprehensive look at it, because people are taking steps without looking at all the options, without looking at what they're doing. And it's a real question whether Congress does have the power to even make a law like that or whether the parties should do it. At the same time, the parties don't seem to have the power to control their state parties. So really, it's a morass of a question, and it needs to be sorted out with a real, high-profile congressional commission. That's the first step, I think.
Q: Do you think people will become so frustrated after this primary season that there will be calls after elections for something like this, that this could almost be the impetus we need?
O'Donnell: I hope it is. After February 5, very few states are going to matter. It's just like the phenomenon of swing states and safe states. If you live in a safe state, your vote doesn't count for much towards electing the president. And with primaries, if you're not in an early state, it's the same thing. You lose out.
I think people will wake up to the fact that, in our democracy, geography shouldn't hold sway over your vote, and no matter where you live, you should be able to cast a meaningful vote. I think people intuitively understand that all the time, but the problem is it takes political guts to make this change if you're a politician.
I hope people see that it's not a question of Iowa and New Hampshire; it's a question of the entire country. The real problem is not that one or the other state has more power than the others, it's the fact that it's creating such disunity. States are fighting states, parties are fighting themselves. And that, politically, is not good. So I hope that is what puts pressure on the parties to change.
Q:Larry Sabato recently called for a constitutional amendment to deal with the mess. Could that be one answer?
O'Donnell: I'm not convinced it has to be done with a constitutional amendment. His argument is that the Founding Fathers didn't anticipate parties, so there is no constitutional basis to regulate them. That's a question, for better or worse, for the Supreme Court. I think things are so bad that Congress ought to act... and make the effort to repair the system.