2/13/2007

Primarily Stupid

I do not understand the presidential selection process. It makes no sense whatsoever. There are 50 states in the union, but it seems that the nominees are selected after only two of these states have their say. And which states are they? Iowa and New Hampshire. But why? And why is it these same two states cycle after cycle?

I just don't get it. Why do Iowa and New Hampshire have the "privilege" of getting the first crack at the presidential candidates each cycle? What makes them more deserving than a Delaware, or a New Mexico, or a North Dakota? It really burns me up when people from Iowa and New Hampshire say that "they take their elections seriously" and "take the time to get to know the candidates." Do you mean to tell me that voters in Mississippi or Oregon are less serious about their voting responsibilities? Do you mean to tell me that people in Rhode Island or Indiana can't be trusted to thoroughly vet out the candidates? What makes Iowa and N.H. so uniquely qualified to handle this? Why not give some other states a chance to prove themselves?

To compensate, the Democrats moved up the contests in Nevada and South Carolina to bring a bit of diversity to the process since Iowa and N.H. are about 95% White. But unfortunately, even though they have good intentions, this approach doesn’t really do much to solve the problem. Democratic officials want to talk about diversity in the form of allowing more minorities to participate in the process. However, one could argue that despite the addition of these two states in the early stages of the campaign, there is still a glaring lack of diversity in other regards that politicians of all stripes must take seriously.

For example, none of those early states are considered border states. Yes, N.H. borders Canada, but you don't hear many stories about illegal aliens infiltrating Coos County! When will the candidates have the opportunity to listen to and address the concerns of people whose lives and property are directly impacted by illegal immigration?

What about large cities? States with large urban centers are definitely being left out of the process. Let's see, you have Des Moines, Las Vegas, Columbia, and Manchester as the largest cities in these states. Do they really have the same concerns as people from Chicago, L.A., or Philadelphia? You would think Democrats in particular would take this into consideration since they rely heavily on the urban vote, but I guess not.

There are also states that have issues unique to them. What about Florida and its Cuban and Haitian refugee conundrum? What about New York and its abundance of terrorist targets? What about Washington and its concerns regarding Asian-Pacific relations? What about California and its minority-majority status? Or how about Louisiana and Mississippi and the aftermath of Katrina? When does it end?

Some people have floated proposals of having the least-populated states go first and having the mega-states like California, Florida, and New York have their contests at the end. However, that would drag the process out too long because we have so many states and voters in the bigger states would be unable to benefit from as much face time with the candidates simply because they would be too busy plane-hopping from Sacramento to Scranton to Sarasota as all the mega-states have their primaries at the same time.

Another commonly stated proposal is to divide the United States into four regions and have one rotating state from each region have its contest at the same time. This is a bit more attractive, but it is essentially a national primary and does not treat all states equally because there is a mix of densely-populated and scarcely populated states in the same region. Florida and Mississippi would presumably be in the same group, as would Vermont and Pennsylvania. And how would you classify states like West Virginia, Texas, and Missouri that fit into more than one region geographically and culturally? Also, grouping states into four regions is going to disadvantage two states (and presumably two regions if they are to all be of equal size) because of the math involved with having 50 states. And besides, who wants to wait 40 years for their state to get first crack at a candidate?

Yet another proposal I often hear is the idea of a national primary. What a terrible idea. This would all but ensure that only the most well-financed candidates had a chance to win. How could a lower tier candidate compete in the San Francisco, Atlanta, Denver, Boston, and Chicago markets at the same time? This would all but ensure that McCain, Giuliani, or Romney would be the nominee for the GOP, while Clinton, Clinton, or Clinton would be the nominee for the Dems.

I think the single best way to improve the process would be to introduce the element of competition. Assign primary and caucus order based on a state’s level of voter participation in the previous presidential election. This would reward states that actually do take their voting responsibilities more seriously and encourage voters around the nation to get out and vote because nobody wants to be from "the state with the apathetic voters." To avoid having 50 caucuses and primaries on 50 different days, one could have the top five states have their contests individually, then have the next ten states have their contests in groups of three, then the next states in groups of four, etc. States in the back of the process would be competing with other similar states for the candidates’ attention, which would be appropriate because they did not earn the privilege to have regular access to the candidates one-on-one.

It’s a shame that this likely will never happen because I really think it’s a good proposal. Voters around the nation would feel that their vote matters, and politicians would be thoroughly tested in the early stages by people who verifiably take their responsibilities seriously. If Iowa and New Hampshire have the two highest levels of voter participation in the presidential election, then they should earn the right to have first crack at the candidates in the next cycle. However, that would be because of their actual commitment to democracy in the form of voting, not because they happen to be residents of those particular states.

If I were a candidate, my strategy would be to campaign in every state other than one of the early ones as a form of protest. If people want to change the process, they have to be bold and draw attention to themselves by their deeds, not by their words. It’s easy for a candidate to say “the system is broken” and then head to a fundraiser in Dubuque or Nashua. If that costs me the election, so be it. But I think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction among the electorate out there that wonders why the process for selecting someone so critical to our nation is so critically flawed. The politician who taps into this disdain can go a long way.

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Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.