Monday, August 20, 2007

When Nominations Come Too Early

Both main U.S. political parties will likely nominate their presidential candidates by the evening of February 5th early next year (see schedule). The partisan elites continue to believe the earlier their candidate is decided the better, despite the evidence presented by recent electoral history. Al Gore secured the democrat nomination in 2000 by March 7th, about eight months before the general election, and still lost to our current president George W. Bush. Even accounting for the controversies in Florida, securing a contested nomination for an open-seat presidency did not even propel Gore above 50% of the popular vote. In 2004, John Kerry secured the nomination after the Super Tuesday results on March 2, only to lead the democrat’s second loosing presidential effort in this century. Both Gore and Kerry secured their party’s nominations significantly earlier than have candidates in past contested primaries.

The Kerry case is interesting for the severity of the mistake the Democratic Party made in its rush to find anyone who could defeat Bush. Dean was leading all major polls and was the darling of the party right up until the Iowa Caucus. Conservative pundits and politicians loved it – ultra lefty Deany would be cake in the general election against the Republican’s war time president. Then the democrats changed their mind – at once. A sudden case of groupthink swept the party as they realized they needed to nominate someone who could beat Bush. Who better than Kerry, who actually joined the military and served in the Vietnam War?

This deprived the democrats of a vetting process to thoroughly examine their candidates and determine which could best stand up under the pressures of a modern national election. Political Scientists and Economists know that countries with more competitive electoral and economic systems have better quality governance and more vibrant economies, because competition forces the competitors to improve their game to their very best. By opting for a candidate they thought could win, rather than waiting for a candidate to win, the democrats deprived themselves of the competitive process to determine who had what it takes.

The national leadership of the parties is not the only factor driving the nominating process early and early each year. State parties and governments have an incentive to move their elections and caucuses up to ensure their states are more relevant to the nominating process, and receive consideration of their issues by the candidates. If left unchecked, this leads to a situation where all states have near simultaneous primaries and caucuses in January of the election year.

Since there is no apparent benefit to the parties to completing the nominating process so early, while it is beneficial to have a competitive process of sufficient duration to thoroughly test and vet their candidates, why cram all the state primaries and caucuses so early in the election year? Congress has the authority to regulate the primary election activities of the states, and it is time Congress stepped in to bring order and efficiency to the partisan nominating processes.

Divide the states into four quarters of roughly equal population; the South, Northeast, Midwest and West, and the West Coast plus Hawaii and Alaska. The states in each region will have their primaries or caucuses on the same day, with each region’s Election Day separated by about a month. Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have a tradition of being the first three presidential nominating battlegrounds. And this also helps level the playing field, as a lesser known or lesser funded candidate can make a run by doing well in these relatively small states early on. Each election year, the sequence of the regions will rotate, to ensure the same states do not fall at the end of the calendar and risk have an election after the nomination is already secured. This would prevent the states from racing to January.

Applying this to 2008, a draft schedule would look something like this:

  • January 29 – Iowa Caucus
  • February 5 – New Hampshire Primary
  • February 12 – South Carolina Primary
  • February 26 – Northeast Region Primary Elections
  • March 18 – South Region Primary Elections
  • April 22 – Midwest and West Region Primary Elections
  • May 20 – West Coast Region Primary Elections

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