The unfair power of the primaries
The system must be redesigned to give all Americans a say in selecting presidential candidates

By Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell
Published July 27th 2005 in Newark Star-Ledger
Political junkies had a field day at the opening of the annual meeting of the National Governors' Association in Des Moines, Iowa. Everywhere you looked was a would-be presidential candidate.

Govs. Mitt Romney, George Pataki, Jeb Bush and Bill Richardson are among those now gracing the pages of countless political horse-race columns and Internet blogs. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger may be pining for the White House (if only he could find a way to change the Constitution's inconvenient provision banning immigrants from running for president). These governors had to be thrilled to be in Iowa, a state that makes or breaks candidates by virtue of its first-in-the-nation time slot in nominating presidential candidates.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, himself a dark-horse presidential hopeful, would no doubt benefit from his roots in his home state. After all, the "Iowa effect" can be formidable. John Kerry's presidential bid seemed dead in the water until he surged forward in Iowa's caucuses. After his surprise win, Kerry coasted to victory, as a party eager to defeat George Bush ratified Iowa's decision in the rapid-fire series of primaries that offered no time for second thoughts.

In effect, one small state, boasting low turnout and an overwhelmingly white population, picked the party's nominee.

The problem is not Iowa; it's the parties' every-state-for-itself system. New Mexico Gov. Richardson has made news with a modest plan to reschedule primaries for eight states and create an early Western primary in 2008 that would include Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Fluent in Spanish, Richardson would presumably run well in several of those states with rising Latino populations.

Richardson is no fool. History shows that candidates do well to concentrate time and money on the states with the earliest primaries. Not surprisingly, other states now left sitting on the sidelines have reacted to this imbalance by moving their primary dates earlier. In June, acting Gov. Richard Codey signed a bill shifting New Jersey's primary to late February.

Continually going earlier might work if we wanted to wind up with 2012 presidential election starting in 2009. Though New Jersey will no longer vote last in the nation, other states are bound to follow suit, triggering a primary avalanche across the country. These moves make sense to each state individually, of course. Iowa and New Hampshire certainly like their position, and states like New Jersey will benefit from rescheduling. Unfortunately, the rest of the country loses out.

As the gaggle of would-be presidential candidates pressed flesh and courted the press at barbecues during the meeting in Des Moines, another important meeting quietly took place. The Democratic Party's Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling met to debate changes to the presidential nomination calendar. Making such changes is not beyond reach.

In 2000, the Republican Party nearly adopted a dramatic overhaul of the primary schedule called the Delaware plan, which would have set up four groups of states that would vote in order of population, with a month off between primary days. After support from a party commission, the proposal made it to the convention floor before George Bush's backers decided against it at the last minute, fearing the plan might boost potential competitors in 2004.

Republicans will have another chance at their 2008 convention, but Democrats can act now. A good option on the table is the "American plan," Thomas Gangale's proposal recently endorsed by the California Young Democrats. Like the Delaware plan, the American plan would create gaps between primaries and would move from states with small populations to states with bigger populations. Unlike the Delaware plan, however, it would create chances for all states to be part of earlier primaries, thus better balancing the interests of large states like New Jersey and California and small states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Not long ago, party conventions dominated the selection process. Primaries were created to transfer the power to pick candidates from party bosses to the people. As we ponder future contenders for the presidency, we should realize that the transfer of power is far from complete. It's time to ensure that all Americans, not just those living in a handful of states, can play a meaningful role in selecting the president.

 Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote - the Center for Voting and Democracy. Ryan O'Donnell is communications director. Their essay was distributed by Knight Ridder- Tribune News Service.

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