The prospect of primary elections in 2007, even around the holidays, is no longer fodder for late-night comedians. It's a very real possibility as states with early voting traditions jockey to stay at the head of the line. South Carolina Republicans last week touched off a new version of the Cold War arms race when they moved their primary to Jan. 19. That prompted Iowa and New Hampshire to threaten to move up their caucus (Iowa) and primary (N.H.) dates to maintain their claim to first voting rights.
"Iowa will go first, that is the bottom line," vowed Gov. Chet Culver.
This means that if New Hampshire counters South Carolina's move to Jan. 19, voters will go to the polls there at the latest by Jan. 12, and gotta-be-first Iowa could caucus not long after New Year's. Or earlier, if somebody else moves up its date. Nevada is scheduled to vote on Jan. 19 but could advance that date a week. Which would make South Carolina move up a week to Jan. 12, and New Hampshire to Jan. 5, and Iowa to . . . December.
There's got to be a better way. The scramble to be first would be silly if the consequences weren't so heavy. Having a handful of inconsequential states, populationwise, decide party favorites before most voters are even aware of who's running is a farce that begs for reform. Such weighty political decisions should not be made by a relative handful of Americans who do not represent a cross section of the country, merely for bragging rights about being first. There is no federal statute that gives these states such a right.
Florida may have started the race this spring by moving its primary up to Jan. 29. But as we said in May, Florida, with its mix of transplants from all over the country, offers a much more meaningful picture of candidate drawing power than Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.
This farcical race to be first, driven by pervasive media coverage and polls, has skewed the primary process into a breathless money chase that only first-tier candidates have a chance of winning. Since donors favor candidates who appear to have the best chance of winning, dark horses who do poorly in these three states generally drop out before the bulk of voters get a chance to weigh in.
Indeed, the Aug. 11 straw vote in Iowa - a meaningless political circus if there ever was one, as candidates pay people to vote - caused one Republican, Tommy Thompson, to drop out after finishing sixth. So with only 14,000 people attending a carnival in one Iowa city, future presidents are being made or broken.
Surely America can do better. Two options have been offered. One, the Graduated Random Presidential Primary System, would start the process in small states so second-tier candidates with small purses could afford to test the waters. Voting would move on to progressively larger states, with poor finishers gradually being weeded out until the few survivors battled it out on the national stage in big states like Florida, California and New York.
The other proposal, called the American Plan, would split voting into 10 calendar intervals, with states chosen at random for each interval. Candidates thus could focus their campaigns on just one handful of states for each period, maximizing their efforts and hopefully maintaining suspense until the majority of states had voted.
The primary system should be designed to pick the best, most qualified presidential nominees. As it exists, it is a platform for the biggest money-raisers to blanket a few small states so the two parties' nominees are decided by the time most people have a chance to vote.