Over Before It is Done
The presidential primary season turns ‘goofy’ in a sea of money, ego, and

By Andrew Gumbel
Published October 4th 2007 in LA City Beat

Many of us may think the season for nominating presidential candidates has barely begun. In fact, though, it is almost over.

The word “season” is generous to the point of absurdity. What we’re looking at is not so much a process of debates, ferocious campaigning, candidate meltdowns and dramatic reversals of fortune like the ones we remember from presidential races past. Instead, it’s going to be more like the opening weekend of a big-budget Hollywood spectacular.

It’s not going to be about quality. It’s not going to be about enduring appeal. It’s going to be all about money and marketing, image-making and branding, and the brute act of getting as many bodies to the polls as humanly possible between dawn and dusk on Tuesday, February 5.

After that, any outstanding questions about who is going to run in November will be academic. Almost exactly half the states are holding their primary that day, including most of the biggies like California and New York. Only the best-funded candidates have a prayer of competing in any meaningful sense, because they – or at least their campaigns – will have to be in several places at once.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that the whole shebang will be decided before Mega-Super Tuesday. Just as Hollywood holds preview screenings and can usually spot a winner from the early feedback on the Internet, the political parties have something called the Iowa caucus. And the New Hampshire primary. And, this year, the Florida primary (January 29), the South Carolina primary (January 19), and the Michigan primary (January 15).

In a political universe where buzz has replaced substance, and image has replaced any pretence at actual public policy debate, it might be enough for a candidate to glow in the aura of the “winner” label after just one of these contests and let the anointing powers of the national media and the national party committees do the rest.

This is, of course, madness – a perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with contemporary American politics. In some ways, it’s almost funny. California and New York want a piece of the primary action, and so move themselves up to early February. Then Florida and Michigan decide to go earlier still, blithely ignoring the disapproving mutterings of the national parties who point out they are breaking the rules and might lose some or all of their delegates at the nominating conventions.

Now Iowa and New Hampshire are about to reschedule, to make sure they stay at the head of the line. It’s not impossible the New Hampshire primary will take place as early as December 18 – which would be the first time a presidential primary has taken place in the wrong calendar year. It’s tempting to wonder: why don’t the candidates put themselves up for 2012 as well, and get it over with already?

The states claim they are looking out for their own electorates and making sure they have a voice in the White House selection process. Really, though, it is about ego and hubris, as state legislatures and governors seek to shower themselves with attention and importance. The greatest outrage is that the election will effectively be decided before there has been any campaign at all. Does anyone other than a handful of political junkies yet have any clue what a Hillary Clinton presidency would look like? Or a Rudy Giuliani presidency? What the voters think won’t just be irrelevant; most voters won’t be given the chance to form an opinion at all.

American political life is notorious for its short memory, so it’s worth emphasizing that things weren’t always this way. In 1968, the Democrats tussled over their chosen candidate right up to the party convention – though admittedly they faced special circumstances because of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and President Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election. At the 1976 Republican Convention, Ronald Reagan almost upstaged Gerald Ford.

Even after that, when conventions became no more than glorified coronation ceremonies, the primary season had real meaning. In 1984, it took Walter Mondale until June to fend off his most serious challenger, Gary Hart. In 2000, John McCain and George Bush clashed for a good couple of months before money and party preference won out over the Straight Talk Express.

The real deterioration began last time around, when John Kerry’s come-from-behind victory in Iowa blew the rest of the Democratic field, especially Howard Dean, out of the water. It should have been obvious to everyone that Kerry was a lousy candidate – in fact he’d been trailing by double digits in the polls for precisely that reason – but after Iowa he was suddenly touted, by the media and the party alike, as the most “electable” Democrat. (Translation: we don’t like Dean, so he’ll do.) The rest was a formality: Kerry had the nomination locked up by Wisconsin in mid-February.

This year, the primary process is starting to look like one of those sexual dysfunction problems that Bob Dole rails against on TV – only now the issue is not lack of arousal but rather its diametric opposite. Everyone’s in such a trouser-fumblingly god-awful rush, it could all be over before we’ve had a chance to see who exactly we’re embracing.

The pretense that this has anything to do with democracy is laughable. Michigan and Florida are right, in a way, not to care that their delegates might get disqualified at the party conventions, because it’s not about delegates. It’s about creating perceptions. In the absence of any substance on which to base those perceptions, it will come down, more than ever before, to money.

Money has been an acute problem in American politics for the past quarter-century, if not longer. Since 1980, 13 out of the 14 nominees selected by the two major parties were also the candidates who had raised the most money by the end of the pre-election year. As long as the primary process still retained some meaning, though, one felt there was still a chance of bucking the fundraising trend. Now that chance is slim-to-none. The media coverage is already devoting much of its attention to the money race; the networks are all but admitting that is what it comes down to.

There is of course a remedy to the escalating madness. A Marin County political scientist called Thomas Gangale has worked out a whole system he calls the American Plan, whereby the primary season would be composed of eight or 10 key dates starting with the smaller states and building up to the largest states. The exact order would vary from election year to election year, to keep things fair.

The idea is that candidates, even the less well funded ones, would have a chance to do some “retail” politicking in the smaller states and earn votes on the merits of their platforms. If they did well, they could then raise more money and be in a position to compete in the larger states. The better funded candidates, meanwhile, would have to work harder – simply bombarding the airwaves with negative ads won’t cut it.

The idea has been endorsed by the electoral reform group FairVote, among others. Theoretically speaking, there is little to dislike. Even the two major parties acknowledge the primary process is spinning out of control – the former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, now a DNC official, recently described it as “goofy.”

Whether anything will actually change is another matter. The parties have limited control over the states, and if the states continue to go wild there’s not a whole lot anybody can do. Sure, America is at a crossroads, the world is rapidly going to hell, and we could all use some effective leadership. But that doesn’t mean we’ll get it, no matter how much we clamor for it. The system simply isn’t built that way.