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Parties crossing the aisle to reshape 2012 presidential nominations

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010; 3:39 PM

At a time of extreme partisanship and political polarization, there's still one thing many Democrats and Republicans agree on: The presidential nominating system needs an overhaul. Luckily, both parties are moving to try to fix it.

The complaints about the system are numerous. The primaries and caucuses start too early. The primary-caucus calendar is too heavily front-loaded. The nomination battle sometimes ends before most voters even start to pay attention. Voters in most states rarely see or hear from the candidates. If a candidate gets on an early roll, there's little opportunity for second thought on the part of the voters.

The 2008 nominating contests demonstrated many of the weaknesses of the system and dispelled at least one myth: The nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton showed that a prolonged contest does not have to hurt a party's chances of winning the White House and may strengthen the eventual nominee.

The 2008 campaign began earlier than ever. Iowa scheduled its caucus on Jan. 3, which meant candidates were crisscrossing Iowa at a time most voters (and campaign workers and the political press corps) would have preferred to spend time with family and friends during the holidays.

Iowa jumped early because other states moved up their events in violation of party rules. The New Hampshire primary, normally held eight days after Iowa, crowded even closer to the date of Iowa's caucuses because of fears that other states were crowding New Hampshire.

Super Tuesday became Super Duper Tuesday when about two dozen states held contests the first Tuesday in February, the most ever on one day and the earliest bunching ever. But two states that broke the rules, Michigan and Florida, were declared non-participants in the Democratic nomination battle. Those states were sanctioned by the Republicans but more modestly.

Republicans saw their nomination battle effectively end after John McCain won the Florida primary, even though he had not yet proved himself the favorite of many in his party. Democrats spent much of the spring debating whether so-called superdelegates could or should undo the results of the more than 50 primaries and caucuses.

The 2012 presidential race will be different, thanks to the work underway by the Democratic and Republican national committees. Neither party has fully signed off on a new system but members have proposed some important changes.

One dog that didn't bark in the current round of deliberations was the toppling of Iowa and New Hampshire as the starting points of the nomination battles. Four years ago, Democrats spent a year or more debating whether Iowa and New Hampshire have too much influence and if so, how to diminish their power to pick a nominee.

The result was to authorize two more states, Nevada and South Carolina, to hold early contests. The upshot was that Iowa and New Hampshire remained at the front of the line and drew a heavy share of the candidates' and the media's attention.

This time, there has been no real controversy about those two states. Once again they will kick off the 2012 voting, with Nevada and South Carolina to follow. Then all other states will be authorized to hold their contests.

But they are expected to hold their events a month later, the first big change agreed upon in both parties. That means the four earliest states will be expected to schedule their contests in February, rather than January.


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