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What to do when the race to govern America turns into a game of Chicken

by Laura Kirshner // Published May 21, 2007
How long must New Hampshire hold out before it definitively schedules its primary ahead of everyone else?

By now political junkies are well aware of the absurd situation involving the presidential primaries. States are vying to be as early as possible in the nomination schedule so they can salvage some of the campaign attention traditionally dominated by Iowa and New Hampshire. Right now, over 20 states have scheduled their primaries for February 5, making it a "Super Duper" or "Tsunami" Tuesday, which some are calling the first national primary. Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have scheduled their primaries throughout January, and Florida recently changed its primary from March to January 29.

Hell-bent on being first, New Hampshire has threatened to move its primary as early as December 2007. The result will be an exhausting, nearly two-year presidential campaign. While it could be difficult to change the rules governing the primary schedule for 2008, now is a good time to come up with an alternative to the current system for the 2012 election.

There is no shortage of alternative ideas. Some potential reforms create blocs of states based on size, region, population, or the extent to which a state represents the diversity of the nation. These blocs schedule their primaries over set intervals, or rotate schedule positions for each election so that everyone gets a chance to bask in the glory of primary campaign attention.

But, as is always the case in politics, there are opponents to each and every proposal and sometimes to any change whatsoever. Check out this radio show in which Host Margot Adler speaks with Larry Sabato, professor at University of Virginia, about the impact the frontloading of the primaries will have on the campaigns and on voters. Listeners also hear a debate between Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, and former FairVote board member Jamie Raskin, who is a professor at American University and a Maryland state senator.

Not that this should surprise anyone, but Cullen supports maintaining the current primary system so that New Hampshire retains the prized first position in the primary schedule, and Raskin is all about a system-overhaul. It is clear right off the bat that Cullen"s arguments are shaky; he basically says that New Hampshire should go first because they know how to do it. He somehow concludes from this that it serves the interest of the nation as a whole to let New Hampshire rule the primaries. Raskin counters with some firmer claims, at least in this blogger"s opinion. He emphasizes the need to make the primary system more participatory and points out that, while no state perfectly reflects the nation"s diversity, many states come far closer to being representative of America than either New Hampshire or Iowa.

Raskin champions the America Plan alternative, which involves 10 groups of states spaced at approximately two-week intervals. The first interval allows a state or combination of states that makes up eight congressional districts to go first, followed by an interval for 16 districts, and then 24, 56, 32, 64, 40, 72, 48, and 80. This enables lesser-known but worthy candidates to win early primaries without the big bucks required for larger primaries. The idea is that the less popular candidates get weeded out and candidates that would otherwise lack the means to carry out an expensive primary campaign would receive funding for future primaries based on their success in the earlier, smaller primaries. The staggered sequence of intervals allows the more populous states the opportunity to vote by the fourth interval.

The past decade has opened up the eyes of many Americans to the need for change in how we elect our president. There are many potential alternatives floating about, but this blogger currently favors the American Plan. If you"ve got a better idea, then by all means, convince me.