Primaries Could Be Decisive by Mid-March
By Terry M. Neal
Midnight yesterday was the deadline for states to inform the Republican National Committee of their primary and caucus dates. Although the Democratic schedule won't be set in stone until the Democratic National Committee's meeting in September, most Democratic contests have been scheduled as well.
The early voting has set off the presidential primary version of an arms race.
New Hampshire yesterday set its primary for Feb. 8. But so worried is New Hampshire about losing its first-primary status that Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) signed a bill this week that allows the state to schedule its primary at any point this year -- or as state GOP Chairman Steve Duprey put it, half-jokingly, "It could be next week."
Iowa, meanwhile, informed the RNC that it would hold its caucuses on Feb. 7. But because state law requires that the balloting be held eight days before the New Hampshire primary, that may be changed to Jan. 31.
California set off the surge when it decided to move its primary up to the first Tuesday in March, the first date it could take without being penalized by the Democratic National Committee. The RNC does not penalize, but offers incentives for states not to move up the calendar.
Since then, Ohio has moved up from late March to March 7. Three other states -- Michigan, Virginia and Washington -- have leapfrogged into February, the month that parties have tried, with decreasing success, to reserve for Iowa and New Hampshire.
This means that the nominating contest, which once evolved over three months, could be essentially over next year within six weeks ending March 14. By that time half of the states, representing three-fourths of party convention delegates, will have held their primaries or caucuses. In 1988, by comparison, only half the delegates were chosen by mid-March.
What's more, for the first time next year, the country's four largest states (California, New York, Texas and Florida) will all hold primaries March 7 or 14 -- shortly after New Hampshire and Iowa.
The schedule has produced alarm among many Republicans and Democrats. "Our worst fears have been realized," said Massachusetts Secretary of Commonwealth William Galvin (D), who is leading a bipartisan group of state elections officials recommending changes to the process. "I think individuals of both parties feel like this is a big mess."
Critics say next year's nominating system will heavily favor establishment candidates who can raise large sums early, diminish the chances of underfinanced dark-horse candidates to emerge over time and, ultimately, damage the electoral process by limiting voters' access to candidates during the time they are most likely to pay attention.
At least four states -- Michigan, Washington, South Carolina and Delaware -- have scheduled GOP and Democratic primaries before the first Tuesday in March. The DNC could choose to penalize states that schedule Democratic contests before the first Tuesday in March by not recognizing a percentage of their delegates at next year's party convention, DNC officials said this week.
Three states, Virginia, Louisiana and Arizona, are planning GOP-only primaries or caucuses in February, with Democratic contests to follow.
California officials argued that their state had been overlooked because its contest was so late. And they said the diversity of their state would force candidates to campaign on broader themes than in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
With California's primary scheduled for March 7, the same day as New York's and about a dozen other states, the country will have the closest thing to a national primary voters have ever seen. Ironically, the bunching of states at the start of the electoral process also might have the opposite impact that states have intended, some critics say.
Instead of magnifying the importance of individual states, the sheer number of states holding contests in such a short period could make it virtually impossible for candidates to campaign extensively in any one state. It would diminish voters' contact with candidates, elevate the importance of media coverage and favor candidates with the money to run expensive television advertising.
"In an effort to make their states more important, they've actually reduced the opportunities for candidates to campaign there or do any retail politicking," said New Hampshire's Duprey, a proponent of the longer primary and caucus format.
"The role of the primaries as a winnowing-out process is gone -- all for the sake of giving clout to states that wanted to have a bigger say," said Irene Natividad, head of the nonpartisan Women's Vote Project, which promotes participation of women in politics. "Now those states have a bigger say, but the people do not."
On the GOP side, at least, there appear to be only two candidates, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and magazine publisher Steve Forbes, who will have the financial resources to run effective paid advertising campaigns in the major battlegrounds beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates who do not do well raising money months before the contests begin could find it increasingly difficult to stay in the race because the other major contests come so quickly after.
But some candidates say the new schedule may neutralize the effect of big money. A candidate who does well in Iowa and New Hampshire would get enough of a boost in free media coverage to make up for lack of money. "California and New York are such huge media markets that there's not enough money in the world to buy enough media to support it," said Ted Welch, fund-raiser for former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander. "What you need is enough money to get you through Iowa and New Hampshire."
Curtis Gans, who runs the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, predicted that the schedule would ensure that the trend of decreasing voter participation continues. He noted that "Super Tuesday" -- the bunching of southern primaries and caucuses that began in the 1980s -- actually depressed voter turnout.
Then there is the view of Stanford political science professor David Brady. He said that because the schedule will favor candidates who can demonstrate broad national appeal and fund-raising ability, it will be more difficult for ideologically extreme candidates from either major party to capture the nomination.
"In my view, anything that makes national candidates compete for the median voter in the United States is something better than competing for the fringes in places like Idaho or Illinois or wherever," Brady said.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company