A few years ago Governor Mike Leavitt pushed hard for Utah and other western states to have more say in presidential politics. It was broadly acknowledged that by the time Utah and the rest of the non-coastal western U.S. got around to their turn in the process, the major political parties’ presidential nominees had already been selected. Consequently, national politicians rarely paid much attention to this region. And that translates to lack of political clout in Washington. Leavitt wanted to change that.
Our nation’s system of caucuses and primaries that determine each major political party’s ultimate presidential nominee was designed in an age before modern communication and travel. Nobody used to know who the eventual nominee would be until the party convention. It didn’t matter that Iowa and New Hampshire were the first states to kick off the process or that other states came along piecemeal in the cycle.
Today, national party conventions are simply symbolic gatherings designed to demonstrate some kind of party pride and unity. It’s been decades since a major party’s presidential nomination wasn’t locked up far in advance of the national convention.
The problems with our system of primaries are well noted, but there is no national consensus on to what to do about it. There is real concern that many of the proposed solutions will only cause other problems without substantially improving the overall situation. So, imperfect as it is, the system continues. And states are left to their own devices as to how to impact the system to their local benefit.
The one thing a state can do is to move its primary election to an earlier point in the cycle. This creates competition for candidates’ resources. As states’ primaries bunch up together, candidates must selectively use their limited resources to campaign where the benefit seems to be greatest.
Under the old paradigm, where primaries were stretched out over many months, candidates were able to have some breathing room along the way to raise funds so they could afford to continue campaigning in various states throughout the cycle. Successes on the road translated to fundraising power. When everything bunches up at the beginning of the cycle, only candidates that have raised a lot of money up front can hope to be competitive. Candidates that are only regionally competitive have no real chance to leverage local successes into successes outside of those regions.
With our current system, states with few electoral votes, such as Utah (currently with five), only become important when a race is very tight. Moving Utah to an earlier point in the cycle can only do so much to mitigate that factor. So Leavitt proposed a plan to neighboring governors to band together to have all of these states’ primaries on the same day. At least then, the reasoning goes, presidential candidates would have to pay attention to the region.
Leavitt’s plan ultimately failed because some of Utah’s neighbors balked at changing their primary dates and at giving up some level of autonomy. Another reason for the failure was that other states moved their primaries to a few days earlier than Utah’s. With far more electoral votes at stake in those 12 states, Utah and the intermountain area were largely ignored anyway.
Another idea is to create agreements between the intermountain states to give the regional winner all of the region’s electoral votes. That would make the region enough of a prize that candidates would have to pay more attention to it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that any candidate will pay more attention to Utah than candidates do today. They would likely spend most of their capital in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. I doubt voters would actually go along with this plan anyway.
Never fear, Governor Huntsman is here! He made a shrewd move very early in the 2008 election cycle to support Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) presidency. But it seems clear that most of Huntsman’s constituents favor former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at this early stage. This is not as strange as it appears. At least on the GOP side, it means that these two candidates will actually have to spend some political capital in Utah.
Huntsman successfully revived the Western States Primary plan in a new and improved fashion. The primary election will be held on the first Tuesday in February in presidential election years. That puts it a full month prior to Super Tuesday, where a quarter of the nation’s states hold their primaries simultaneously.
However, the intermountain region is not alone in trying to vote earlier in the cycle. Already a number of other states are talking about shifting to earlier in the cycle. New Hampshire and Iowa are furious about the prospect of losing their status as the bellwethers of presidential politics. They will not sit idly by while other states try to usurp their positions, although, these positions serve no logical purpose nationally.
This race to be earlier in the cycle has an obvious destination. It might take some time, but eventually the entire nation will be holding its primaries on New Years Day. New Hampshire will open its polls at 12:01 AM as well lubricated residents throw confetti, sing Auld Lang Syne and slip into voting booths.
In the end, Utah will have no more political clout in the process than before. But we will have spent chunks of money to shift primary dates and to shmooz other states into joining us. We’ve already done it twice. What’s to stop us from doing it again?
And just imagine the outcome. Presidential aspirants will have to be even more aggressive in building their campaign and fundraising machines far in advance of the national primary election. We will all be deluged by presidential politics for months in the run up to the primary. Presidential politics will intrude on Christmas season commercialism every four years. And once the primary is over, it will be nonstop presidential campaigning for over 10 months straight. Now, doesn’t that sound like fun!
And my point is? Well, I don’t know. I doubt there’s anything that can be done to stop this eventuality. I used to be upset that Christmas promotions started the day after Halloween instead of the day after Thanksgiving. Now stores put up Christmas stuff in September. It’s in horribly bad taste. I enjoy Christmas, but I hate being whacked over the head with Christmas for almost four months straight. And there’s nothing I can do to change it. I guess that’s the way our primary election process is going as well.