There They Go Again: Fixing the Primary Process

By Dan Balz
Sunday, June 28, 2009

There is no end to the complaints about the way the two political parties select their presidential nominees. As the litany goes, the process begins too early, gives undue influence to a handful of small, unrepresentative states and has encouraged a disorderly leapfrogging by other states that has resulted in an unseemly, virtual national primary early in the season.

Over the years, the nominating process has been examined repeatedly by the political parties, by distinguished commissions, by academics and by secretaries of state, all with the goal of building a better mousetrap. Virtually all have resulted in disappointment or unintended consequences.

Now a new effort to fix a broken system has begun. A commission established by the Democratic National Committee to review the nomination process held its first public meeting yesterday in Washington. A panel set up by the Republican National Committee to examine its process met privately a week ago.

There is a sense of deja vu about all this. As one weary Democrat said yesterday as she and others gathered at a downtown hotel, "If it's an off year, there must be another commission." But this time there is a twist. With both committees working simultaneously -- and in some ways cooperatively -- reformers hope that real improvements in the timing and sequence of the primaries and caucuses could result.

If the two parties are successful, the 2012 presidential campaign will probably begin later than it did in 2008 -- February rather than January -- with most contests not starting until March. That alone would be a significant improvement.

If the ambitions of some are met -- and this is far less likely, given the limited ability of national parties to impose order on states -- a dramatically revamped system might emerge. And if the provocative idea of one expert is adopted, Democrats would cut all superdelegates in favor of a system that relies on the people's votes.

There is an inevitable wonkiness to these efforts. But there's no disputing that the rules governing the nomination process can affect candidates' fortunes. Just ask supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The DNC's decision to punish Florida and Michigan for staging their contests in violation of party rules, particularly the penalty against Florida, robbed her of victories that could have changed the outcome. The Obama campaign's mastery of the nominating rules clearly contributed to his victory over Clinton.

It's difficult for anyone to argue that the chaos and controversies over the 2008 calendar discouraged voters from participating. Democrats especially enjoyed huge turnouts in state after state.

Nor did the front-loading of the calendar -- there were nearly two dozen contests on Super Tuesday in February 2008 -- end the Democratic nomination battle early. But 2008's battle is not likely to be repeated in the near future.

Even if the 2008 system did not prevent a long, spirited and gripping Democratic contest, controversies over the calendar nonetheless played havoc with candidates' strategies and budgets through much of the year. In the end, Iowa's caucuses were held Jan. 3, 2008, followed five days later by New Hampshire's primary, disrupting the holiday season and leaving everyone looking for a better system.

The role of Iowa and New Hampshire at the front of the nominating calendar remains controversial but appears less likely to dominate the latest calendar debate. The GOP already has exempted New Hampshire and South Carolina (Iowa doesn't need one, because its GOP caucuses are technically nonbinding). In 2008, Democrats added Nevada and South Carolina to the list of states authorized to hold early contests in a bid to bring more regional balance and demographic diversity.

Democrats in some big states still aren't happy with this system, but the likelihood of major change is limited. The question will be how to reward states who go later to give their voters added weight in the process. The first order of business will be overall timing, rather than who goes first.

The Democrats have been charged with looking not only at the timing of the calendar but also at the role of superdelegates. This became a source of genuine controversy during the Obama-Clinton battle over whether these elected officials and party leaders might override the will of the voters, and hand the nomination to Clinton.

At least one student of the process, Elaine Kamarck of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, recommended yesterday that it is time to eliminate superdelegates. Kamarck, author of "Primary Politics," a forthcoming book on the nominating process, argued that the selection of presidential nominees is now a public process and has eliminated the need for elites who could assert themselves in the equivalent of a back-room role.

She made her case before an audience that included many past and potential superdelegates. The response was skeptical. Instead, the goal of leading members of the DNC panel appears to be a more limited role for superdelegates.

Democrats will also examine the role of the caucuses. The goal is to establish standards for the states to ensure that these events are conducted in a more orderly fashion.

But inevitably the question of whether caucuses are exclusionary -- because they are held at a fixed time and in a limited number of places -- and therefore need to be modified will arise.

Some Republicans seek a grand realignment of the nominating process -- a series of primary-caucus days with groupings of states for each day. Others on the RNC's committee think those goals are too ambitious. They hope to ensure that the 2012 GOP nominating battle begins later and avoids the crackup of a virtual national primary of the 2008 kind.

The more ambitious the redesigns, the less probable are big changes. But the climate is different, and the ingredients now exist that could produce modest, but valuable, changes in a process that has left so many dissatisfied.

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