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Time to Rethink the Nomination Process

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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.

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About Drew McKissick

Drew McKissick is a political consultant with over twenty-five years of experience specializing in political strategy, planning and organization as well as the development of grassroots related political action programs. He has worked as a political activist at the local, state and national levels, and has served in elected and appointed positions at all levels of the Republican Party, including serving as a member of the Republican National Committee. He also writes a regular column providing analysis and commentary on current events.
  • Sisyphus

    “demand that Congress help them take the process back FROM the media.”

    On the other hand, one might argue that the less government interference, the better. Besides, such a proposal does nothing to change the so-called 24-hour news cycle. I do agree that the current nomination process leaves much to be desired, but nipping at the margins probably won’t accomplish very much. It’s more-or-less how we arrived where we are today.

  • Daniel

    Better yet, lets make a national primary in October, hold the coronation (aka “conventions”) on Halloween, and the election in November. Also, ban all campaign ads/editorials/endorsments from tv/radio/newspapers etc before September of each election year. Our meaningless elections have gotten out of control, costing an estimated $1 billion for the ’08 election (and that’s just for president). Less than 1/2 of the eligible american “sheeple” will once again elect yet another rich white male republican or democrat (no real difference as far as I can tell), who is beholden to the special interest groups that paid for their “election”. The majority of americans will go on with their pathetic lives as usual, more worried about how many minutes they have left on their cellphone/camera/ipod/tv/raygun combo device than how they will survive when the oil finally runs out. Luckily for me most of them will starve to death in their mega SUVs at the drivethru at McD’s, wondering what the delay is. Bring on the collapse of civilization- I only hope it happens sooner rather than later.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    As Daniel implies above, the problem with the “process” is the attitude of the American people towards it (viewing it as nothing but a spectator sport) and the determination of numerous special interests in the States to keep the popular attitude that way.

    Minnesota has an excellent nominations process, district caucuses. But they require participation by the citizenry. The citizenry are less and less willing to put out one lousy Tuesday night out of the year to participate in a party caucus meeting.Farting in front of the boob tube is a more important activity for many of them; laying a few on in a bar is another important activity. Need I go on?

    If fewer than half of Americans vote in presidential elections, it either indicts the sovereignty of the government, or it indicts the idea of giving stupid slobs the right to choose their rulers – or both.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    I have a problem of my own with the primaries: why must they be intervallic? Why can’t every state hold its primary on the same day?

    I grew up in North Carolina, almost always one of the last states to hold a primary; in 1992, 1996, and 2000, when I voted there, the nominations had already been clinched before the NC primary came along. NC voters were denied the opportunity to participate in the process of nominating their party’s candidate.

    Being a political consultant, Drew, can you explain to me why staggering the state primaries is more desirable?

  • Drew

    Michael,

    First, as I mentioned, per the Constitution, states set these dates (or can set them), not Congress…which is the first answer for why they’re all over the board. So either being spread out or on the same day involves cooperation among the states – or just sheer luck.

    As to “why” it’s better to spread things out, there’s several reasons.

    If they were all the same day, NC and many other states wouldn’t mean much in the overall scheme of things. As it would be a “national” campaign, candidates would focus TV dollars in media markets with the most delegates on the line. Thus less attention for party members in most states. It also would then make the cost of the current process – for anyone wanting to take a shot at running – pale by comparison. And the more cost prohibitive, the fewer candidates there would be…and/or the less of a shot some otherwise good candidates would have.

    By spreading things out (forgeting for a moment “how” or which states go where) you lower the bar for entry into the process. More candidates can run, more can afford to run (as they only have to have enough money to get their name out and organize in a few states), and the party members in those states get a good look at the candidates over a longer process.

    Technically, the number of delegates each state has to its national convention is the only “influence” that state has on the process. The other type of influence, as I alluded to in the article, is a product of the media – writing off those who don’t do well in earlier states, or crowing those who do. Since the media’s not going to go away, the best way to “share” that spotlight would be for states to agree to a rotating system of primary/caucus dates.

    (Or just give them some free TV time…then winning/losing early won’t matter quite as much)

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    If they were all the same day, NC and many other states wouldn’t mean much in the overall scheme of things.

    But as it is, they mean nothing at all. If Candidate X has already sewn up the nomination six weeks before the NC primary, are they really going to spend any time or money in there, or pay any attention to state party members?

    Perhaps, if not a single national contest, they could be clustered. I.e., there could be five “Super Tuesdays,” on each of which ten states of various size and delegation strength would have their primaries.

  • Drew

    But the fact that some states are late in the process now is just the result of those states choosing to be later in the process, not someone forcing them to be. What you’re seeing now, as I mentioned above, is states choosing to move up to grab more of the limelight…but w/so many going in/around the same time it defeats the purpose becuase it spreads out the attention.

    The comment you made about several “Super Tuesday’s” is sort of where I was going (and others) w/the idea of “revolving clusters” of primary/caucus dates. (ex.a few small states…then a big one a few days later…then a few weeks off, then a few more small states and another big one a few days later…etc., repeated all around the country….and the order in terms of how early various states would be grouped would be traded off (or rotated) every presidential election cycle…so everyone gets a shot at being early, but the process stays stretched out enough to allow many candidates to compete and allows voters in more states to get a good look at them while it’s still fairly competitive.

    As w/just about anything, there’s no perfect solution, but that would be far better than what we have now, or just a massive national primary .