There are currently nineteen announced candidates vying for the Democratic and Republican nominations for president (9 and 10 candidates per party, respectively). The field in both contests can only be described as wide open and very much subject to change. And yet just nine months from now, on 5 February if not before, the two nominees will almost certainly have been decided - months before their formal selection at the party conventions, and at greater remove from the general election than ever before. The current presidential primary system is falling to pieces this time around, and its collapse poses serious problems to the integrity of the American electoral process.
Just last week, the Florida legislature approved
a bill moving its presidential primary to 29 January 2008 (in fact the bill's text mandates that the primary occur one week following New Hampshire's primary, but no earlier than 8 January 2008). Florida's move preempts South Carolina's long-held "first in the South" status, and the Republican party chairman there said the state would respond: "South Carolina will name a date that keeps us first in the South. It could be as early as Halloween and our version of trick-or-treat, if we have to." New Hampshire has said it might move up its primary too, even into late 2007, a move which would almost certainly prompt action by Iowa to keep its caucuses in their current position.
Sixteen states have already moved their primaries up to 5 February, including delegate-rich New York and California. At least six additional states are known to be considering joining what's being called "Super-Duper Tuesday," "Mega-Tuesday," or "National Primary Day." With every additional move to join the 5 February bandwagon, it becomes increasingly likely that both parties' nominees may be known nine months
before the general election.
The current uncertain calendar does a great disservice to all concerned. I can't imagine trying to plan a primary campaign when the dates keep shifting around underfoot: savvy resource placement is a matter of survival in a campaign with as many candidates as this one has sprouted, and the constant fluctuations must be driving candidates and their staffs to distraction. More importantly, though, the hyper-frontloaded primary process means that the retail politics of which Iowa and New Hampshire have been the proud hosts for many an election cycle will fall by the wayside. Leisurely afternoon town hall meetings in school gymnasia or meet-and-greets in Iowa backyards will be forced to cede their place to mass rallies at airport hangers as candidates jet in, wave and stump for a moment or two, and jet out again, bound for the next state on their list for that day.
Voters around the country have long reaped the benefits from the deliberative processes of the early primary and caucus states, where the people got to know the candidates (I met a woman in New Hampshire back in 1999 who had seen and talked to all of the Republicans running that year - I think there were about seven left then - not once, but twice
). In early 2004 I traveled up to New Hampshire and saw three of the major Democratic candidates on the same day. This kind of politics - less sound bite, more substance - is being shoved under the bus this year. And it's a shame.
I don't have a good solution in mind for this problem, but I hope that the chaos during this cycle will finally prompt real systemic change for the 2012 process. Maybe a rotating four-regional primary system (with IA and NH out in front as before) is the way to go. All I know is, what's happening right now isn't good for anybody, least of all the candidates and the American voters. It's no way to pick a president.