Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Back to the Future: The February Frontloading Experiment is Over

The Democratic Change Commission?

Well, it is a change election, so while we're on the topic why not change the method of selecting presidential nominees in the future? If Obama and the DNC have their way, that's just what the Democrats will do. At issue? The frontloading of presidential nominating events. [What, again? Didn't we already do this four years ago and four years before that and... Yes, and we'll do it again until we get it right.


The proposed commission would be tasked with examining the frontloading problem and devising potential solutions. For once the GOP is actually out in front on this one. They are set to discuss the Ohio Plan at their convention in St. Paul next month. That proposal would grant the Favored Four (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) their position at the front of the line, but would grant a collection of the smallest remaining states the option of holding their contests next, prior to bigger states (which would be divided into three groups). Following the early states, the small state group would vote on the third Tuesday in February. The first group of larger states would then vote two weeks later with the final two groups stretching out three and six weeks beyond that.

The DNC and Obama spokespersons were not terribly clear about the direction in which the party wanted to head, but did target the caucus system (still a Clinton supporter sore point) and frontloading as things that needed to be addressed prior to the next cycle.

But here is what they did say:
Protect the Favored Four?
"Obama continues to believe in the important role that Iowa and New Hampshire have historically played in the process of choosing our party’s Presidential Nominee and the important early role Nevada and South Carolina had in 2008," [Obama spokesman, Nick] Shapiro added.
Scale back the window in which primaries and caucuses can be held?
"So, we are recommending that our nominating rules be amended so that no primary or caucus can be held prior to the first Tuesday in March, except for the four pre-window states."
Stop frontloading?
"We are asking the Democratic Party to review this frontloading and look for a workable solution to reduce it," Shapiro wrote.

I'm with Shapiro on those first two points. That's been done before. The Favored Four are favored for a reason (tradition) and the beginning point of the window has been moved before. The GOP moved it into February in 2000 and the Democrats followed suit over the course of the 2004 and 2008 cycles. But to undo that shift forward? That hasn't been done. And there still has been no viable solution to the frontloading problem. Well, there is no shortage of solution ideas, but there is a decided lack of methods for carrying those ideas out.

On its surface, scaling the window back to the first week in March (for all non-exempt states) would essentially return the calendar to its pre-2000 form. And that first week in March timing is not too far off from the starting point for all the non-exempt states (the Favored Four in other words) in the Ohio Plan proposal that the GOP has advanced. [Ooh, is that a hint at the potential for bipartisan accord on this issue?] However, preventing states from jumping that point and not crowding in on that early March Tuesday is going to be where the real work on this issue will need to be done. And that is where the ability of state parties, partisans of both stripes in state governments and the national parties working together to come to a solution comes into play. Well, if that's all, it should be a snap.

It won't be, but I'll certainly have my eye on the conventions in the coming weeks to see not only how this proposed commission fares but whether the Ohio Plan passes muster at the GOP convention (the only time they can deal with the issue prior to 2012). The new commission would have a report ready no later than January of 2010.


And here's the word from Iowa.

Recent Posts:
The Electoral College Map (8/20/08)

On VP Predictions: Timing and Choices

Is Rasmussen's Inclusion of "Leaners" Affecting the Electoral College Outlook Now? An Update


Anonymous said...

It’s sad that we still consider it a given that the Favored Four should be “protected”. This is profoundly undemocratic, and contributes to the lack of engagement of voters across the country. Any collection of small states, let alone the same four every cycle, is going to be unrepresentative, since by definition they will not contain large urban areas. However, the benefits of beginning the process with smaller electorates has value, enabling retail politics to level the playing field for candidates with less money or name recognition. But there is a better way.

Why do we feel compelled to conduct our primaries across an entire state? We already have the country divided into 435 manageable units, called Congressional Districts. How about holding the first primary in one Congressional District, chosen by lottery? It might be a part of Brooklyn, or the entire state of North Dakota, or even half of New Hampshire, if they get lucky. Seems a lot more fair.

Two weeks later, the next primary could be held in two adjoining districts, also chosen by lottery. Gradually, over the course of the primary season, we would increase the size of the electorate, allowing the advantages of momentum and organization to take over. Each cycle, the order of primaries would be reselected randomly, allowing people all over the country a chance to have their say early.

But the states have been allowed to decide when they hold their primaries, and as we have seen, are nearly impossible to control. It is a lot to ask the states to adhere to a centrally mandated system, especially since they pay the cost of running the election. Money is probably the key to enforcing compliance. Federal money (or party money) would be disbursed to cover the cost of the primaries, but only to states following the schedule. I think you would see near-universal compliance.

Now, that’s some real reform: more fairness and less frontloading. Sorry, Iowa and New Hampshire, but you’ve gotten spoiled.

Jack said...

If we strip Iowa and New Hampshire of their early primaries, the people in those states would be so mad that it just might cost the Democrats these important swing states. I know most people don't worry too much about the mechanics of the primary system, but Iowans and New Hampshirites consider their early primaries a sacred right. Taking them away could really backfire.

Meanwhile, Nevada and South Carolina were chosen because of the varied demographics of the states, to give different groups an early say. I think the system, therefore, is fairly representative.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting idea, Russ. I think you are right to say that a reform of this magnitude would have to originate and be implemented/enforced by the federal government. And as I mentioned a few weeks ago in reference to the forthcoming Dan Lowenstein chapter, Congress would have a firm position in court should any reform idea initiated there be challenged by the states, state parties or national parties.

In theory it could be done, but the price tag would, I'd imagine, be quite high. It would be one thing if the federal government supplied the funding to the states for these elections in exchange for compliance. That's a total of 50 (or 100, depending upon how you want to look at it) elections. When we break it down to the congressional district level, what we are essentially talking about are 435 (or 870) elections, that while they are not special elections in the truest sense would be most closely related to those types of elections from a funding perspective. I don't have a sense of how high that price tag would be, but I'd wager that it would be pretty high.

While pooh-poohing the idea somewhat, it would be ideal for collecting "cost of election" data; data which is notoriously difficult to gather based on which government (state, local, etc.) is charged with housing such figures. That would be similar to the advent of the federal funding regime that began in the 1970s and began to unravel, both from data collection and viability standpoint when the opt-out wave began in the late '90s.