Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Rules Have Changed

In my last post, I mentioned that Rudy Giuliani appeals to many Republicans because he is perceived as being strong on national security. And apparently perception is what is significant here, as was mentioned in the commentary. Democracy Lover wonders in one of his comments how Giuliani, who is “not with the Republican base on guns, abortion and gays” could manage to land the Republican nomination.

I must admit that I have been scratching my head about that one for many weeks now. I think part of the answer to that lies in the fact that 9/11 changed everything. It dramatically reordered priorities. During the 2000 campaign, G. W. Bush espoused a realist view of national security. Within a day of 9/11, he turned into a neocon, as did many in his administration, when being attacked on our home soil became far more real than realism theory. Administration members that didn’t go along were changed out one by one.

But that’s not the whole story. Although national security is a trump issue for many conservatives, social and fiscal conservative issues are not completely dead. In fact, it is arguable that the GOP’s failure to deliver on fiscal conservative issues sealed their doom in last November’s elections. So what else is going on here?

Yesterday an experienced political campaigner opened my eyes. It comes down to the changes in the primary election process, which I wrote about last month. While the trend of states moving to earlier points in the cycle has been occurring for some time now, it is reaching critical mass. We used to start with the Iowa caucuses, where conservatives are socially and fiscally conservative. The campaign trail next led to New Hampshire, where the conservatives are libertarian. This was followed by South Carolina, where Republicans are from the conservative wing of the party.

The campaigner said that television advertising in these three markets might run somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million. Campaigns were able to effectively organize in these markets with relatively small numbers of people. Once that initial flurry was over, there was a bit of a breather. This allowed the dust to settle. We were then able to see who truly had momentum. Many contenders were weeded out. Many donors waited on the sidelines until that point, allowing survivors a respite to ply those donors for funds to continue their campaigns. But this whole process put too much power into the hands of relatively few. It is not surprising that most other states felt they were getting the shaft.

Flash forward to 2008. The plan is to begin like normal, with the Iowa caucuses on January 21. New Hampshire will hold its primary one week later — this time in tandem with Florida. I’m sure folks in the Granite State are not very happy about sharing their traditional first primary date with folks from the Sunshine State (Iowa holds caucuses, not a primary election). This will be followed by South Carolina just four days later.

This four-state run lasts only 12 days, so candidates will need to effectively campaign in all four markets at once. Adding Florida to the mix substantially alters the equation. The combined populations of IA, NH and SC total about 8.5 million, while Florida alone has about 18 million people. And Republicans in Florida are not like Republicans in these three small states. Not only did Floridians elect Mark Foley, but the state also has a significant GOP-leaning Cuban ex-pat population that has a specialized focus. Suddenly candidates need to have a huge marketing arm aimed at those with diverse interests, rather than being able to hold a narrow focus with a small budget.

But what happens next changes the dynamics of the race even more. Just three days after SC, candidates will have to be competitive in 15 states (some of these have not completely committed yet), including the population centers of California and New York. The total population of these states is more than 125 million. And Republicans in these states are diverse. GOP voters in CA, NJ and NY are far more moderate than GOP voters in MO, NC, OK and UT as a whole. The “GOP base” that is often referenced is actually far more diverse than many think it to be. And this primary election will prove it.

On February 5, 2008 (Giga-Tuesday), GOP hopefuls are going to have to be competitive in six markets with populations in excess of 8 million. The campaigner I mentioned said off the top of his head that TV advertising alone in these markets could run $100 million. That’s 100 times the amount George Bush had to have in his coffers by the same time in 2000. Since these primaries happen just 15 days after the whole cycle begins, candidates have to be competitive in 19 states all at the same time (and probably more, because some states come right on the heels of Giga-Tuesday).

The upside is that this process will likely produce a nominee that will be more competitive in the presidential race in November. The rules have changed. Candidates won’t have to zig so far to the right only to zag to the center after the primaries. Small state conservatives that are often more socially conservative than their large state siblings no longer have a lock on determining the party’s nominee. This is why Giuliani can actually be a contender for the GOP nomination. It is also why John McCain, who lost momentum in SC in 2000 for being too liberal, is still viable. In fact, some observers think that Mitt Romney may have hurt his chances in this new primary process by running too far to the right.

But there are drawbacks to this brave new world. Candidates used to be able to get involved and become viable with determination, work, and a small war chest. As they built steam, money came in that helped them continue. Candidates will now have to be completely viable before the primary election starts. They will need humongous war chests far in advance of the Iowa caucuses. Second tier candidates that used to still have opportunity going into Iowa will have no such chance next year unless they organize and get a lot of money this year. Presidential politics just became vastly more expensive. And that means lots more backroom deals. Any wonder why all major candidates are foregoing public funds this time around?

Of course, the major drawback to most Americans will be that we will in effect have two national presidential campaigns. The first one will be over long before a dozen straggler states hold their primaries in May and June. By this time next year we will probably know who the two major party candidates will be. And then we will suffer through eight interminable months of head-to-head presidential campaigning. If you think Americans are suffering war fatigue, wait until you see how much campaign fatigue they have by November 2008.

Perhaps it will be so bad that people will want to actually get serious about reforming our primary election process. There are many reform proposals out there, ranging from complete public funding to awarding states primary election positions similar to the way the NBA draft is run. Perhaps this next election cycle will prompt a substantive national debate about how we should go about determining our presidential nominees.

1 comment:

Democracy Lover said...

You make some excellent points here. Essentially we have a primary process that insures that only the best funded candidates with the least negatives will end up as nominees of the two parties.

How do they get the millions of dollars it takes to contest elections in several states at once? They mortgage themselves to the powerful interests that back their party and pledge to support them, regardless of what the people want.

Placing Florida in the mix early means that enormous sums are required to even be viable after that primary. A candidate can easily take the Iowa caucuses by using grassroots efforts, and New Hampshire is small enough and interested enough in politics to allow a candidate to walk around and shake hands, speak to small groups and otherwise spend very little money. Florida - no way. You have to have multiple millions to come in 1 or 2 in that primary, and anyone who doesn't will be labeled a loser by the media which will do them in.

Our electoral system is at a dead end, and if something is not done soon our republic will be lost. I support exclusively public financing of all campaigns for federal office, instant-run-off elections, abolishing the electoral college, requiring broadcast media to provide free time to federal candidates, restoring the fairness doctrine, and a return to paper ballots nationwide. I'm not hopeful any of those measures will be enacted.