Primary Madness

Friday, February 9, 2007

BY THIS TIME next year, the races for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations are likely to be over. Bemoaning the front-loaded primary calendar has become a quadrennial event, but this campaign could be more speeded up than ever and even less healthful for the democratic process. Under the plan, the Democrats' 2008 sprint starts with caucuses in Iowa (Jan. 14) and Nevada (Jan. 19), followed by primaries in New Hampshire (Jan. 22) and South Carolina (Jan. 29). New Hampshire, angry that its first-in-the-nation status is being threatened, could jump the starting gun and move its contest even earlier, to 2007.

But the worst news is that a number of larger states, including California, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois, are considering moving their primaries to Feb. 5, the first permissible date for other states to hold contests. On the part of each individual state, this is a rational act: Why should voters from smaller states determine the outcome while big-state voters are shut out? But the overall result will be a worsening of all the ill effects of front-loading, and for both parties: In most states, the Republican primary is held the same day.

Front-loading benefits better-known candidates with big bank accounts more than it does dark horses who might be able to do well and gain momentum in a more rationally paced system. It deprives most voters in most states of having a say in who their party's nominee will be. It short-circuits a process that could test candidates' capacities for connecting with voters and conveying their views.

The Democratic National Committee has tried to bribe states into waiting by offering them bonus delegates for going later, but this doesn't seem likely to work. As a result, for 2008, there's not much to do about this state of affairs other than lament it. Regarding 2012, now is the time for both parties to get together on a reform. Because Republicans will set their rules for 2012 at the 2008 convention, the parties' consultation needs to happen soon.

The National Association of Secretaries of State has proposed a calendar that would allow Iowa and New Hampshire to go first, followed by four regional primaries held every month from March through June. The regions would rotate their positions on the primary calendar each cycle. We supported the plan in 2000, when it seemed the process couldn't become much crazier. Now, when that campaign looks measured and sedate by the light-speed standards of 2008, we agree more than ever.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company