A disastrous trend

The system for electing US Presidents is undergoing the biggest transformation since TV revolutionised the 1960 election, and possibly since Andrew Jackson popularised the voting in 1820s. For once, I am not talking about the internet and citizen journalism - though those two themes offer one possible response to this wholly regrettable trend.

I am talking about the concentration of the primary timetable. Every cycle it gets worse, and in 2008 we are staring in the face of a virtual national primary.

This is problematic for a variety of reasons. American parties are thoroughly institutionalised into the political process, making it very hard for a third party candidate to break through. American elections are inevitably - in a huge and diverse country - monstrously expensive. It is no coincidence that the last independent to shake the system up was not someone who broke away from one of the major parties - a Joe Lieberman, say - but a rogue billionaire prepared to blow $100 million on stroking his own ego. Mike Bloomberg is said to be considering a similar run for 2008.

In the 1970s, George McGovern and Jimmy Carter established reputations slowly, by winning primaries in the early states and building a pot of money and some TV face-time to take on the later, bigger, states. In 1976, both parties had highly competitive primary campaigns that ran right up until June, when California and New Jersey voted. In the case of the GOP, the campaign didn't even end there, as it was still not clear if Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan would triumph at the convention.

2008 ought to be even more open than 1976 - it will be the first election since 1952 without the serving President or Vice-President on the ballot. Usually, at least one of the parties has a lopsided race. Not this time. But despite the absence of an incumbent candidate, neither race will be open. No-one will be competitive who has not raised $100 million before the first votes are even cast. Every candidate will need an infrastructure in place in at least 20 states even before the Iowa caucuses.

The trend started in the 1980s, when a clutch of southern states created 'super-Tuesday', a major regional primary designed to make southerners competitive in the Democratic nomination. Though Al Gore failed to win in 1988, the southern tilt probably helped Bill Clinton in 1992. By 2000 non-southern states had hit back with a new super-Tuesday, incorporating a dozen states including New York, Ohio and California.

Now California, which has already moved from June to March, is looking at the first week of February. If this happens, a race that opens in early January is likely to be over three weeks later.

It is important at this point to explain why this matters. That it upsets elections geeks, who love the idea of a marathon knock out contest from January to June, is insufficient reason to reject the contracted primary season.

The first problem is that candidates will emerge somewhat less tested. The campaign itself is now longer. In both parties people are already talking about 'the big three'. Candidates will be tested in the blogosphere, and to a lesser extent in the less challenging environment of the MSM, but they will not be progressively tested by voters as used to happen. Sooner or later a party is going to select a dodo. I don't mean, here, an articulate candidate with a lengthy résumé and no personal warmth, like John Kerry. I mean a candidate who implodes. A candidate with a major personal scandal that emerges after they have been selected but well in advance of the election.

Another risk is that it will tilt the balance away from state politicians towards federal politicians. At present this looks more of a risk for the Democrats - all of their big three are current or former senators, compared with just one on the Republican side. Governors such as Carter and Clinton established their reputations slowly over a series of primary wins. This is harder with a virtual national primary. Already the media takes candidates from the Senate more seriously than voters do. The contracted primary season gives an edge to flawed senatorial candidates when parties and electors would be better served by candidates with executive experience.

Who can solve this problem? Despite the institutionalisation of American parties, there is no decision of law which can reverse this trend. Federal law has no jurisdiction. The states are caught in a prisoners' dilemma. All would be better served by a lengthened primary season, but all wish their own primary to be as early as possible. Only the parties can solve it. New Hampshire's law requiring its primary to be first only matters if the parties award convention delegates on the basis of the primary.

The parties came close to agreeing a rotating series of regional primaries in the 1990s. The idea was that the early status of NH and IA would be preserved. Then there would be four super-regional primaries at monthly intervals. But even this is a weaker formula than the strung out series of two, three or four primaries a week over five months that prevailed in the 70s and 80s.

I suggested a timetable here that met most of the objections, balancing regional interests, red states with blue states, and large and small - though with a slight bias to the small and also to swing states. If a timetable such as this needs to rotate to be seen as fair, then that is fine, but it is important to keep the very biggest states from voting before the campaign is half way through.

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