Thursday, January 25, 2007

Primary timing

There's a new round of competition among states to leap-frog their primaries and caucuses over one another. (See today's NYT article.) The timing of primaries and caucuses is an almost incomprehensible amalgam of national party rules, state party rules and state laws. Some states, like New Hampshire, have exercised enormous clout in the past. New Hampshire has managed to retain its first-in-the-nation primary through national party rules that would refuse to seat delegates chosen through any primary held earlier than New Hampshire's. We need a national policy, not a state-by-state race to February.

Now, not surprisingly, some big states (California, Illinois and Florida) are pushing a move to the week after New Hampshire, so as to increase their influence in the nominating process. It seems to me that this year, in which no incumbent president or vice-president is seeking his party's nomination, would be an ideal year for bringing some order to the primary/caucus process. The ideas of national primaries, regional primaries and other modified versions of nominating procedures have been kicked around and debated for decades. We're not going to learn much more about their relative merits, and it's time to make some decisions about how to shorten up a process that's way too long, way too expensive and way too draining.

It's time for the DNC and the RNC to get together and agree on a sensible schedule, and then formalize the system in federal law. For example, we could have four regional primaries spread apart by two or three weeks, starting with the lowest media-cost region; or we could rotate the order of the regions in each election cycle so that the delegate-rich regions don't always appear at the same point. If one thinks that it's really valuable (or populist) to have one really small, inexpensive primary -- like New Hampshire -- at the outset to allow dark horses to emerge, then the new system could have one of those each cycle but that state could be chosen from a bigger pool, sort of like the 65-64 play-in game at the NCAA basketball tournament. For example, in 2008 the first primary might be held in sunny Arizona; the 2012 one might be in Montana.