Primary politics may never be the same after this season's jostling and jockeying.
By Nancy Grape
Published August 26th 2007 in the Portland Press Herald
One voting event on that long calendar has already happened. The Iowa Republican straw poll surveyed voters' preferences in that state earlier this month.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- a liberal on social issues then, a conservative now -- campaigned hard and won the GOP poll with just over 31 percent of the vote.
Another ex-governor, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, came in second, with about 18 percent. And a third, former Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, finished far enough back in the pack to drop out of presidential contention.
All of which has proven to have little or no meaning at all.
Of course, that's not how the people of Iowa see it. This month's straw poll was their first since 1999 and they want to believe it was important.
Leading Republican candidates and almost-candidates, however, did not see it that way.
Commenting on the failure of GOP stars like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Sen. Fred D. Thompson of "Law and Order" and Tennessee, to take part in the straw poll, one uncommitted Iowa voter had this to say: "You can't get this many people together and not make an impact by staying away. You just can't do it. There's just too many people here," Lorna Burnside told USA Today.
Maybe yes, maybe no. An estimated 30,000 to 33,000 showed up for the straw poll, down from 38,000 in 1999 and well below the 40,000 voters that Iowa Republicans had predicted. So interest wasn't exactly red hot.
Take it a few hundred miles in any direction from downtown Des Moines, and the Republican straw poll probably had less impact on national life than a hummingbird's wing in Ohio.
Among Democrats, too, I suspect a similar power-to-distance ratio may apply to states pushing and shoving to move to the top of the calendar for upcoming presidential caucuses and primaries. Some may be headed for the woodshed this weekend when Democrats from the states meet in Washington, D.C., with the Democratic National Committee's powerful rules committee.
No question, there has been a lot wrong with the primary season for years. First and foremost is the fact that the two most influential states -- Iowa with its caucuses and New Hampshire with its first-in-the-nation primary -- exist in many ways like postcards sent to 2008 voters from the year 1950. What they see is a nice place to visit, but they don't -- and they don't want to -- live there.
Major urban centers don't have white-painted general stores. They have discount warehouses, soul-food restaurants, upscale supermarkets and bodegas. Voters there aren't likely to pay much attention to someone talking about living green who's never ridden on a subway. They want to hear from candidates who know their world and are ready to talk seriously about it.
Frustrated by this reality, Democrats are busy playing leapfrog with the primary schedule to give improved pride of place to urban states in choosing a presidential nominee.
It's no secret that Democrats have most at stake in any primary schedule that fails to front-load urban voters. Their urban constituencies lose out when early primary and caucus voters with the power to give candidates powerful momentum are mostly white, middle-class and carry the American dream in their pocket.
Iowa law says its caucuses must be held eight days before any other presidential contests. New Hampshire law requires its presidential primary be held at least a week before any other primaries. As pressure builds in urban states like Michigan to spring forward, political experts talk about Christmas and what happens if Iowa and New Hampshire laws push those states to New Year's edge.
Meanwhile, the process itself grows ever more fragile. Even political junkies whose eyes shine at the thought of a political stump speech with their Thanksgiving turkey realize that for most people, there are other things to be excited about in the holiday season.
As one operative noted recently, "Who's going to interrupt Jimmy Stewart and 'It's A Wonderful Life' with a negative (campaign) ad?"
Even so, this primary season may produce profound change, if not at the top, then just a bit further down the calendar.
Under the current schedule, by the end of the day on Feb. 5, Democrats in more than half the states -- 27 in all, east and west, north and south, small and large, urban and rural, liberal and conservative -- will have voted in caucuses and primaries. It's even probable the nominee will have emerged. And the primary juggling, the leapfrogging and the intra-party feuding, at least for Democrats, will be over.
Happy Valentine's Day!