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The Primaries' Premature Nomination Problem

by Paul Fidalgo // Published September 28, 2007
The Race that Started Too Early May Be Over Before We Know It

A FairVote Innovative Analysis

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Facts in the Spotlight

Date by which Walter Mondale had locked up the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination: June 5

Date by which John Kerry had effectively locked up the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination: February 17

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When Dick Gephardt eked out a win in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, no one was under the illusion that the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination was over. Nor was it over in 1992 when Iowans chose favorite son Sen. Tom Harkin and Paul Tsongas won in New Hampshire, both defeating eventual nominee Bill Clinton. John McCain found that a lopsided New Hampshire win was not enough to survive the awaiting Bush 2000 machine.

But in 2004, John Kerry went from single digits to a surprise win in Iowa in what seemed like the blink of an eye, and by the time voters had rubbed their eyes and refocused, Kerry was already the presumptive nominee. His Iowa glow carried into a win in New Hampshire, and the campaign was effectively over long before the alleged "super Tuesday" in March.

The most important job interview: Presidential primaries ideally are a national vetting process in which voters within the parties can take a careful look at their potential standard bearers via speeches, debates, and personal interaction. They want a good sense of a candidate"s grasp of the issues, ability to handle adversity, and even their regional strengths. They also can take this chance to fully debate the potential future direction of their party, which is more "in play" in the presidential nomination contests than any other part of our politics.

This kind of rigorous candidate testing and debate is best when the contests are spread throughout an election season. In 1984, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson clashed with Walter Mondale all the way to June before Mondale managed to collect enough delegates to clinch his party"s nod. Over the proceeding election cycles, though, states began to clue in that the sooner they held their primaries, the more likely they were to gain influence.

Over before it"s over: In 2004 John Kerry had wrapped up his nomination by February 17 with a win in Wisconsin, and his winning streak from Iowa barely a month before had been almost totally uninterrupted. In the end, Kerry had dominated 27 states with more than 55% of the vote or more (and 16 states with over 70%), all of them essentially irrelevant after February 17.

Activists, journalists and political junkies may be following all the ups and downs of the current campaign, but the majority of the voting public won't tune in untilactual contests are upon us. Now that a herd of states have stampeded to the front of the calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire have likely become even more defining in the nomination process, and the parties will likely have their nominees even more quickly than in 2004. We'll then have nine excruciating months to watch the nominees battle it out over the airwaves for the benefit of a handful of relevant swing states.

A saner approach: FairVote backs the American Plan to reform the primaries, a system that creates clusters of primaries of increasing state size. We like the idea of small states holding early contests, giving us a close-up look at candidates through retail politics, but balance that positioning with opportunities for larger states to play a decisive role. And just as importantly, every state needs to feel an incentive to play by the rules, ending the stampede once and for all.

It"s time to "fix the primaries" -- indeed we've joined with advocates of a range of proposals to so just that. Track this debate at www.fixtheprimaries.com.

Click here for previous editions of Innovative Analysis.