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Paul Hayden

Our Broken Primary System

March 10, 2008

In presidential politics, it really is true that the early birds get all the tasty worms. A new study from Brown University shows that our process is unfairly "front-loaded." Our broken primary system allows a small number of states to decide, if not the actual nominee of the two major parties, at least who the front-runners will be. In a nation where everyone has a right to vote, every citizen's vote should count equally.

Unfortunately, the votes of New Hampshire and Iowa citizens are more equal than those of other Americans. Even so-called "reform" proposals for the primaries would still show favoritism to these two states. In one proposal by the National Association of Secretaries of State, the nation would be divided into four regions. Every four years a different region would hold its primaries first, so that over a sixteen year period of time each would have priority once. But New Hampshire would still hold the first primary, and the Iowa caucuses would be held before any of the regional primaries.

Brian Knight, associate professor of economics and public policy at Brown University, and Nathan Schiff, a graduate student, conducted a scientific study of how momentum shifts as the sequence of primaries progresses. Their appalling conclusion? New Hampshire and Iowa citizens have up to twenty times the influence in candidate selection of voters in later states. This should make anyone who cares about a fair democratic process very angry.

New Hampshire has actually passed a law that states it shall hold its primary "at least seven days immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election." In a cynical effort to maintain this status, New Hampshire politicos have threatened that candidates who do not pledge to keep New Hampshire first will not be welcome to campaign in the tiny state.

Why should these two states always be first? Perhaps a better question would be, "Why should they NOT be first?" I think they should not be first primarily because it is wrong for ANY state to have as much influence over a national election as they do. But specifically, these two states should not be first because their populations are not representative of the nation as a whole. They are mainly white, mostly rural, and are wealthier than the national average.

And it's not just Iowa and New Hampshire which are given preference. About half the states unfairly influence the presidential selection process. The current election cycle demonstrates this. Long before many states had voted, the Democrat field had narrowed to Barrack Hussein Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. And John Sidney McCain, III, was acknowledged as the "Presumptive Nominee" of the Republican Party halfway through the process. I don't believe any fair-minded observer would argue that if the order in which the states held their primaries or caucuses were changed, the results would have been far different.

"Front-loading" means that long before most Americans have had the chance to vote, the Democrat and Republican nominations are set in stone. A University of Virginia's Center for Politics study found that in the 2000 election, George Bush and Al Gore had "all but locked up" their nominations by early in March. The votes of citizens in two thirds of the states basically counted for nothing.

Someone has to win each state's primary. And when they do, they are rewarded with the two M's: "Momentum" and Money. Never mind that the margins may have been razor thin. Never mind that a "win" in one state where the winner takes all of the delegates may have garnered the candidate fewer delegates than an opponent who came in second in a primary in a state where the delegates are awarded proportionate to the percentage of votes won. But America likes winners. So the candidate who received more delegates is considered a loser. And the other candidate who received fewer delegates is considered a winner, and receives the spoils: the campaign contributions and the perception that he or she is the most likely to win.

No one likes to back a loser. So as the early primaries in this terribly broken system change the nation's perceptions concerning who can win, people switch allegiances and the donations stop going to the "losers" - who might easily have been the winners had the order of the primaries been different. And without the money and the volunteers, the self-fulfilling prophecies of the early primary states come true.

For example, look back to the Democrat primaries in 2004. Prior to the balloting in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2004, the Democratic nomination seemed like it was already pretty well in the bag for Howard "The Scream" Dean. He had a huge lead in the national polls and seemed to have the Democrat nomination sewed up. But Iowa changed all that. John Kerry came out on top with 38 percent; John Edwards got 32 percent; and Dean brought up the rear with 18 percent. But if the primary had been in Vermont, where Dean had been a popular governor, he would likely have come in first. Likewise, if it had been in South Carolina, Edwards would have beaten Kerry. 

Complaining about what he termed the "perpetual privilege" of Iowa and New Hampshire, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has told the Democrat National Committe, "We shouldn't have a rule that some states are more equal than others."  And somone I thought I would never agree with, Jimmy Carter, in a 2005 study on election reform co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, concluded: "The presidential primary system is organized in a way that encourages candidates to start their campaigns too early, spend too much money, and allows as few as eight percent of the voters to choose the nominees. The primary schedule is in need of a comprehensive overhaul."

What is the answer to this major mess? I think it should be obvious. All states should hold their primaries on the same day, just as the national elections for president are all held on the same day - and for the same reason. We all saw what happened when the blow-dried talking heads on national TV "called" Florida for Bush when most of the polls in the Eastern part of the closed. The dummies didn't realize that Florida has two time zones, and that the polls were still open in the Panhandle. Because of the ignorance of the network pundits, many citizens in heavily Republican western Florida did not bother to vote. Were it not for that blunder, Al Gore wouldn't have been able to create havoc in Florida with all his vote recount nonsense. Bush would have been the hands-down winner.

Think how much worse it would be if each state held its election for president on different days, and the results were announced nationally. We would have the same inequity that we now have with the primaries - a few states would decide who would become president, as they now decide who will be the nominees.

There are obvious problems with this idea. The wealthiest candidates, and the ones who have backing from special interests, would have an even greater advantage that they have under the present broken system. This could easily be fixed by limiting the size of donations from anyone, including the candidate and any organization. And Political Action Committees (PAC's) would also have to be eliminated; these are nothing more than organizations designed to get around campaign financing laws.

It has been a long, long time since Americans have really chosen their own president. The party bosses decide whom they will allow to run, and the voters in a handful of states pick from among the anointed ones. We need to take back the process. We, the People, need to tell the political hacks that we demand a president (and a government) that represents US!


Brown University Study

University of Virginia Center for Politics Study

ABC: Are U.S. Elections "Front Loaded?"

"Reform" Proposal for State Primaries

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Copyright ©2008 Tom Barrett

Dr. Tom Barrett is a pastor, teacher, author, conference keynote speaker, professor, certified executive coach, and marketplace minister. His teaching and coaching have blessed both church and business leaders. He has been ordained for over 40 years, and has pastored in seven churches over that time. Today he “pastors pastors” as he oversees ordained and licensed ministers in Florida for his ministerial fellowship.

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