A short history of presidential primaries
Although a Niagara of vitriol is drenching politics, the two parties are acting sensibly and in tandem about something once considered a matter of constitutional significance -- the process by which presidential nominations are won.
The 2012 process will begin 17 months from now -- in February rather than January. Under rules adopted by both parties' national committees, no delegates to the national conventions shall be selected before the first Tuesday in March -- except for delegates from New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Iowa may still conduct its caucuses, which do not select delegates, in February.
It is not graven on the heart of man by the finger of God that the Entitled Four shall go first, but it might as well be. Although they have just 3.8 percent of the nation's population, they do represent four regions. Anyway, they shall have the spotlight to themselves until the deluge of delegate selections begin -- perhaps in March but preferably in April.
Any Republican delegate-selection event held before the first day of April shall be penalized: The result cannot be, as many Republicans prefer, a winner-take-all allocation of delegates. March events "shall provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis." This means only that some of the delegates must be allocated proportional to the total vote.
Because Democrats are severe democrats, they have no winner-take-all events, so they do not have this stick with which to discipline disobedient states. Instead, they brandish -- they are, after all, liberals -- a carrot: States will be offered bonus delegates for moving their nominating events deeper into the nominating season, and for clustering their contests with those of neighboring states.
Each party wants to maximize its chance of nominating a strong candidate and -- this is sometimes an afterthought -- one who would not embarrass it as president. So both parties have equal interests in lengthening the nominating process to reduce the likelihood that a cascade of early victories will settle nomination contests before they have performed their proper testing-and-winnowing function.
With states jockeying for early positions, the danger has been that the process will become compressed into something similar to an early national primary. This would heavily favor well-known and well-funded candidates and would virtually exclude everyone else.
There have been other proposals. One would divide the nation into four regions voting on monthly intervals, with the order of voting rotating every four years. Another would spread voting over 10 two-week intervals, with the largest states voting last, thereby giving lesser-known candidates a chance to build strength.
Such plans, however, require cooperation approaching altruism among the states, which should not be counted on. Instead, the two parties are in a Madisonian mood, understanding that incentives are more reliable than moral exhortations in changing behavior.
Speaking of the sainted Madison, the parties' reforms are a small step back toward what the Constitution envisioned: settled rules for something important. The nation's Founders considered the selection of presidential candidates so crucial that they wanted the process to be controlled by the Constitution. So they devised a system under which the nomination of presidential candidates and the election of a president occurred simultaneously:
Electors meeting in their respective states, in numbers equal to their states' senators and representatives, would vote for two candidates for president. When Congress counted the votes, the one with the most would become president, the runner-up vice president.
This did not survive the quick emergence of parties. After the presidential election of 1800, which was settled in the House after 36 votes, the 12th Amendment was adopted, and suddenly the nation had what it has had ever since -- a process of paramount importance but without settled rules. The process has been a political version of the "tragedy of the commons" -- by everyone acting self-interestedly, everyone's interests are injured.
In 1952, Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee won every Democratic primary he entered except Florida's, which was won by Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia. So the nominee was . . . Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson. Party bosses, a species as dead as the dinosaurs, disliked Kefauver.
Today, the parties' modest reforms -- the best kind -- have somewhat reduced the risks inherent in thorough democratization of the nomination process. Certainly the democratization has not correlated with dramatic improvements in the caliber of nominees. And the current president, whose campaign was his qualification for the office, is proof that even a protracted and shrewd campaign is not an infallible predictor of skillful governance.