However it's broken, it's time to fix primary process

By Ryan O'Donnell
Published July 15th 2007 in San Jose Mercury News
It's July, a year before the Democratic and Republican conventions, and our presidential nominating process is working perfectly - if the goal is entertainment.

For reformers, the old gripe about the primaries used to be that things were over too fast and too soon, and that most of the country just couldn't find a place to sit at the two-seat table with Iowa and New Hampshire.

The new gripe is - well, take your pick. We certainly aren't suffering from valid complaints, starting with the obvious one of the nominations likely being decided a full-term pregnancy away from the general election. Here's a review from the political cocktail circuit:

We're going to have a de facto national primary. States have been unilaterally moving their primaries earlier with the goal of gaining influence. As a result, more than half the country will have voted by Feb. 5, or "Tsunami Tuesday." The worry is that a national primary favors candidates with Scrooge McDuck bank accounts and removes the door-to-door retail politicking voters in New Hampshire and Iowa love.

We're going to have a de facto national primary - and it won't matter. States all crave political influence the way "American Idol" competitors crave fame - that is, unrealistically. The new crush of primaries on the first Tuesday of February waters down the influence of all the participating states and shifts the focus to the biggest and most delegate-rich among them.

New Hampshire and Iowa still rule. The magic power of these states has always been the momentum bestowed upon the candidates who win early victories. Candidates who carry early states or do better than expected are buoyed by free press coverage and rocketed into the next cluster of primaries so fast that all deliberation ceases. In 2008, it might be that Tsunami Tuesday will actually make New Hampshire and Iowa matter more than they ever have.

Forget about North Korea; Florida is the new rogue state. The problem with our primaries might be summed up in one word - chaos. Florida's shifting of its primary to January changes the game significantly for presidential contenders, especially because it is such an important swing state in the general election. The move resembles a fat kid doing a cannonball into a still pool; Florida's splash may just incite Michigan to move its primary right after the primary in New Hampshire, its perennial rival in the nomination debate.

The worst part is, there's no right answer.

Solutions to address the chaos come in many flavors. Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., has a proposal to split the country up into geographical regions and "subregions." The National Associations of Secretaries of State would let giant regions vote on a rotating basis. A plan by Larry Sabato would integrate a lottery into the equation. FairVote and Tom Gangale back the "American" plan, a system that creates clusters of primaries of increasing state size. My sarcastic uncle wants to do it with a ring toss.

You get the idea.

America may have to wait until February to see how all this pans out, but few expect the process to go smoothly. The one gripe that can be universally made is that right now, there is no policy in the United States for how to run presidential nominations. That is the assumption of, a program seeking to raise awareness of the problem and draw reformers together to eventually unite around a solution, even if they can't agree right now.

Its main goal: a national commission that can help the parties coordinate reform steps so that we have a sane process in 2012. Primary schedule reform will work best if the major parties take action together.

Until then, sit back and be entertained.

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