The first ballots for President will not be cast for almost a year and the nomination process is already approaching full tilt. It will soon get even more hectic if several states have their way.
States such as Florida, California, Illinois and New Jersey are working to move their presidential primary dates up earlier in 2008 in order to grab a share of the media spotlight that shines on states that vote early in the process. In fact, over half of all states, representing almost three-fourths of the total US population, could be holding their primaries or caucuses on February 5th of next year – a full month before what used to be known as “Super Tuesday”.
Clearly someone needs to declare a cease-fire in the battle for the national limelight. When this cycle is over, the political parties and state governments should work to broker an agreement creating a rotating system of primary and caucus dates.
So many delegates from so many states elected within such a short time frame means that we’re getting closer to a de-facto national primary, which is good for no one but the insanely rich or the already well known.
The irony is that, with so many states voting earlier in the process, they only decrease the influence their own voters will have on the outcome. No state will be special anymore, as the media and the candidates will have too many places to spend their time. In fact the media coverage itself – not the states or their voters – becomes much more paramount. In many ways it almost becomes the process.
Years ago, many small states moved their primaries up earlier in the process to help offset the fact that they were so small and had few delegates to their national conventions. And since such small states are usually easier and cheaper to campaign in, more candidates are inclined to run. This is a good thing.
The main reason those states have became so important is simply because the media is so quick to write off anyone who doesn’t win them – despite the fact that they have only a tiny percentage of the total delegates needed to win. And why does that media coverage become so important? In a word, money.
Being declared a “winner” or a “loser” in those small early states by the media means that some donor somewhere will be more or less likely to give money to particular candidates. That then means that some candidates will be more or less able to compete in the big states because those states are also the ones with the most expensive media markets. And if you can’t pay to be on TV in those states, you can’t win.
In fact TV is really what’s gone wrong with this whole process, which is less a product of the political parties and more a result of the 24 hour news cycle. Each of the major news outlets has an arrangement with a major research company that produces the crack cocaine of the news room – the horse-race poll. And since it’s the media’s job to fill empty airtime and blank pages – and the polling companies get paid to do polls – viola!, you get two or three of these polls produced every week.
In other words, the media pays a pollster to ask voters some questions so they’ve then got “news” to report and, as a result, the “news” becomes all about who’s up and who’s down and very little about substance.
The there’s the cost of TV advertising. If it were free, then it wouldn’t matter nearly as much who won a few thousand votes in Iowa in the middle of winter. The candidates would still be able to campaign in the big, expensive states with free TV time. And those states wouldn’t get ignored, which caused them to start moving to the front of the calendar to begin with.
Instead of breaking their necks to bunch up their primary dates and thereby hand the process over to the media, the states should get-together and demand that Congress help them take the process back FROM the media. Mandate that the television stations that make so much money off of our public airwaves by way of their government issued broadcast licenses grant some free airtime to political candidates. It would seem like a fair trade. And it makes more sense than limiting how much money each American can contribute to political campaigns, since TV is what makes the process cost so much to begin with.
The result would be a less rushed and more competitive campaign season, and a better look at all the candidates by a larger segment of the public. Sounds like an improvement to me.