Balancing Act: Iowa, N.H. vs. Critics

Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.) has attacked the weight of the early Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.) has attacked the weight of the early Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

For much of the past year, a Democratic Party commission labored to build a better mousetrap. The goal is to create a 2008 presidential nominating calendar that reduces the outsized influence of Iowa and New Hampshire and stretches the process into the spring to give a better chance to potentially strong candidates even if they do not win early contests.

Now that the commission has made its proposal and the Democratic National Committee is deciding what to do, the reviews from outsiders are a mixed bag. New Hampshire politicians are nearly uniform in deploring the proposed changes. Political scientists, meanwhile, disagree over whether the recommendations would diminish or add to the problems they were designed to solve.

Elaine C. Kamarck, a Harvard professor, a longtime Democratic activist and one of the first witnesses before the commission, calls the proposals inadequate and fears they will only add to the problem of stacking early events on top of one another, a phenomenon known as "front-loading."

The risk of a front-loaded primary calendar is that it produces a nominee long before many voters have begun to pay attention, or seriously weigh who would be the party's most effective contender in a general election. "Let me just say that this does not seem to solve the problem," Kamarck said.

But Thomas E. Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar who appeared with Kamarck to offer expert testimony, praised the panel for smartly navigating a thicket of conflicting interests, arguing that the proposed schedule will not contribute further to front-loading. "My view is they squeezed the most they possibly could out of it," he said.

The panel, which carried the unwieldy name of Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling, made two sets of recommendations, one dealing with the opening phase of the nominating calendar and the other with the later phases.

The commission came into existence as part of a bargain between former DNC chairman Terence R. McAuliffe and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). Levin has long agitated against what he calls the privileged position of Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold the first caucus and first primary every four years. During the 2004 presidential campaign cycle, McAuliffe bought peace with Levin by promising to appoint a commission after the election if the senator would agree not to try to blow up the calendar for that year.

The commission, chaired by former labor secretary Alexis M. Herman and Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), began work early in the year under pressure to add diversity to the early part of the nomination battle -- diversity being a code word for diminishing the significance of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Proponents of a new system argued that the two small, largely white states are not representative enough of the country and the Democratic Party to warrant the influence they have on who becomes the nominee. As supporters see it, states in other regions, with larger African American and Latino populations and economies with more manufacturing and union representation, deserve a louder voice in winnowing the field and influencing the outcome.

The commission's final recommendation was a classic compromise. Seeking to avoid angering Iowa and New Hampshire voters, the panel reaffirmed Iowa's status as the first state to hold a caucus and New Hampshire's as the first to hold a primary. Seeking to mollify the critics of those two states, the commission proposed inserting one or two caucuses between Iowa and New Hampshire in mid-January 2008 and then adding one or two primaries shortly after the Granite State's primary. No other states would be authorized to hold contests before Feb. 5, 2008.

The proposal disappointed the most vociferous critics of the current system, who were dismayed by the reaffirmation of Iowa's and New Hampshire's status. It also prompted complaints from New Hampshire politicians, who saw the insertion of more events before their primary as effectively diluting the state's importance. For half a century, New Hampshire's contest has generated more attention than any other primary or caucus and has become an integral part of the state's identity.

The DNC must ratify these proposed changes at a meeting in April, but New Hampshire still has the ability to negate what the national party wants to do.

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