Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Race to the Beginning

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.


That One Guy said...

I think a complete and comprehensive election system overhaul is in order.

There is motion toward a publicly funded campaign movement (yay!), but it should go even further and include the primaries and caucus systems as well. The current system is still rooted in the Pony Express era, and it makes me laugh when people (like those in NH) talk about how sacred the current system is, how it should be kept the way the Founding Fathers envisioned it, how we should hold to it because it's set forth in the constitution, blah blah blah...

But they have no problem ammending the constitution to take care of their moral zealot concerns.

I heard a lady from NH on the radio the other day defending her state's position as the first Primary state - she said that they do a service to the country in weeding out who gets through and who doesn't. Why should that state, or any single state, have that position?

Democracy Lover said...

I have to agree that the primary system is an utter failure and the ever earlier launch of presidential campaigns serves only to cause candidates to spent more time and incur more IOU's (redeemable in votes one assumes) in order to stay viable over the long cycle. This serves the interests of the well-heeled establishment who pretty much decide the election a year or more before even New Hampshire gets a vote.

I think we ought to look at alternatives. I strongly favor instant runoff voting where voters select not only their first choice but their 2nd and 3rd choice as well and if their 1st choice is eliminated, their vote goes to #2, etc. That could help less well-funded candidates.

I would also eliminate the electoral college since it skews the vote into 2-3 battleground states instead of making this a national race.

Why not select 4-5 states that are allowed to hold primaries in the first 2 months of an election year and then call a 30-day hiatus before the next round. States going first could be selected in order to give a broad representation of different parts of the country and rotated every cycle.

How about we require broadcasters to provide free airtime to candidates for federal office in their area? How about public financing of campaigns? How about banning all private funds including so-called issue ads by special interests? How about vote-by-mail like Oregon?

Reach Upward said...

I find the idea of instant runoff voting quite intriguing. It has been implemented in some state and county political conventions with success. What are the drawbacks?

It would also be interesting to see the primaries rotated. A certain number of states would vote every two or three weeks throughout the cycle, with states rotating through the cycle.

I am opposed to doing away with the Electoral College. The Founders hit upon this formula to strike a balance between individual rights and state rights. We have already stripped state governments of representation in the Senate. It would be folly to completely remove any clout that states hold as separate entities. We still need a proper balance between individual and state rights for good government.

Oregon's vote by mail program has a number of flaws that would have to be addressed before I thought it was a good idea. But in general, I favor the idea of broadening access to vote. It would be great if we could ensure proper security and privacy with Internet voting, but there may be some insurmountable obstacles there.

Publicly funded elections have not served the countries well that do this. Most voters have no desire to use taxpayer funds to fund the Party for Three-Legged Dogs. I'm not opposed to private funding. I just want all funding to be completely and immediately transparent.

Bradley said...

Reach, I think you hit on it in your previous comment: we need to rotate the primaries. This time Iowa is first, next time they rotate to the end of the cycle. We get to keep the advantages of stretching out the campaign without giving an inordinate amount of clout to Iowa corn farmers.

y-intercept said...

I like the rotating primary idea. The elections really need to begin with one or two states thinning the ranks of candidates ... followed by several weeks of gradually larger election days.

The pyramid structure means that most states will be at the tail end, and no-one wants to be at the tail end all of the time.

Unfortunately, the selection of lead off state cannot just be a random draw. The lead off state should be distanced from Washington DC, and should not have any really large biases in the electorate. This means that there is only a small pool of really good lead off states.

Davis Didjeridu said...

First, a brief fact check: Utah has 5 electoral votes (one for each member of Utah's congressional delegation).
Otherwise, thanks for your post. I am very worried about the moves by other large states (CA, FL, MI, etc) to move their primaries to Feb 5, 2008, currently the same day as Utah.

Reach Upward said...

DD, you are correct about the number of electoral votes Utah has. And I discovered that I actually do have five digits on my hand. Although I write some fairly complex computer algorithms, I never was very good at math. I'll correct my post.

Thank you for noting that several large states want to move their primaries to coincide with our early primary. That simply makes my point. We will all soon be incrementally moving to January 1.

Democracy Lover said...

You raise an interesting issue about states rights. In the Constitutional Convention, coming out of the loose confederation and the colonial era, preserving the rights of states was probably essential to obtaining ratification. Now, however, is it still worthwhile?

What rights do states need in the 21st century?

Reach Upward said...

We fought a war over the interpretation of states rights. The outcome of that war meant that the union was ultimately superior to the rights of individual states. Thus, states are subdivisions of the union and cannot exist independent of the union. And it was finally decided that we have a strong rather than a weak central government.

But this does not mean that states do not serve a vital purpose and it did not sweep away state autonomy. We benefit from being able to govern ourselves closer to home. Yes, that means less uniformity, but that is exactly the point. While people in all states share many common needs and desires, there are also significant localized differences. State governments serve to address those needs and desires. A single central government with robotic satellites is too impersonal to accomplish this. (That's why NCLB is problematic.)

Since localized needs, desires, and values do exist, and state governments exist to address those, it is essential that they have some level of autonomy from the central government. It provides a level of checks and balances that our Founders knew were essential.

Thus, state governments must have some kind of leverage with the federal government. Without this they would cease to perform their proper function. Without this, the needs and desires of the heavy urban areas of the nation would completely override those of the less populous and rural areas, creating a tyranny of the majority.

I believe state governments perform an extremely vital function in a healthy representative democracy. Likewise, I feel that county and municipal governments are essential elements of this vitality.

Democracy Lover said...

I don't entirely disagree with your defense of the proper role of the states. I do think it's important to revisit some of the decisions of the late 18th century to make sure they still serve our needs.

I don't see that abolishing the electoral college would in any way prevent any state from exercising its authority to benefit its citizens. When I hear the "tyranny of the majority" argument, I wonder what the minority fears that the majority will impose. (I grew up in the South when state's rights was code for segregation.)

In this case, I think it is more important to insure that each individual citizen's vote for President is counted and given equal weight. I cannot defend giving more weight to the vote of a Utah rancher than to a New York dairy farmer.

I think your argument would be more potent as a defense of retaining the Senate rather than going to a unicameral legislature, but not as a defense of the electoral college.

Reach Upward said...

I am fully aware of the "states rights" code of the Old South. But that does not invalidate the need for states to have a certain level of autonomy, which requires some leverage with the federal government.

The problem with the Senate is that with the passage of the 17th Amendement, the Senate discontinued having state governments as their constituents and began having individuals within their states as constituents. They became representatives at large.

Although not allotted by population, the Senate now functions more like a second House of Representatives than it did when its members were beholden to state legislatures. It still serves a check and balance purpose, but senators do not represent state governments. Thus, state governments lost much of their voice with the central government with the passage of the amendment.

The 17th Amendment was crafted to resolve some very real and persistent problems. I argue, however, that it was a poor tool for the job. It was like trying to fix a broken piece of furniture with a sledgehammer. Thus, it has created other problems.

I am very surprised at your take on the tyranny of the majority. This is a very real issue. In its most severe forms it has harshly punished Black Americans and European Jews. In its milder forms, it is a mindset that is simply incapable of understanding the needs and desires of the minority. In Utah, Democrats in the legislature have a very sharp understanding of this, since they are such a small minority. Our Founders' plan was to protect the majority from the minority and vice versa.

Presidents are beholden to their constituents. If all a presidential candidate has to do is to appeal to about 50% of the voting public, that can easily be done in a monolithic way. Heavy urban areas across the nation vote similarly. Campaigining and advertising in heavy urban areas is easier and less expensive than reaching out to less populous states.

Candidates could win by simply focusing heavily on four or five states. Guess which states will be favored in the new president's agenda. Guess which states Congressional leaders will elevate to ├╝ber importance. If you think the midwest and intermountain west are flyover country now, imagine what it will be like then.

Our Founders were not idiots when they developed the Electoral College. Doing away with it would have real negative consequences.

Democracy Lover said...

You make some very interesting comments, many of which I support.

I think, however, that characterizing the founder's protections as protective of minorities is somewhat misleading. They were interested in protecting the propertied classes (i.e., their own kind) from the mob that they feared would diminish their rights to their property -- which we have to admit included slaves in many cases.

Your comments about our electoral process are certainly apt, but again the electoral college is hardly a reasonable or effective way to address those problems. In fact, it could well be argued that it makes things worse by concentrating the presidential race in 2-3 states where the balance between Republicans and Democrats is near 50-50, in spite of the fact that these states are not particularly representative of the nation as a whole.

If we use the considerable power of government to create a more level playing field between candidates it would alleviate many of the problems you point out. The problem is not so much that candidates would spend more time in New York and California than Florida and Ohio, but that the cost of mounting a campaign is so high that it is virtually impossible for a candidate to reach the general election without having become beholden to special interests.

In addition, the race is dominated by advertising buys and public relations spinmeisters and the media is only interested in pursuing stories about strategy and who is ahead rather than exploring the potential effects of a candidate's policy proposals.

To make matters worse, one party in particular pursues a strategy of vote suppression through intentional misallocation of voting machines, voter challenges, and other tactics. Those efforts are more successful because they can be concentrated in the battleground states.

I fail to see how loss of the electoral college would affect any of these issues except positively.