IN THE BAD old days when moneyed, cigar-smoking types chose presidential nominees, reformers shifted power to ordinary folks by organizing primaries. In the bad new days when moneyed, wine-sipping types are asserting their influence afresh, the country needs another smart idea to rejuvenate democracy. Without some kind of reform, the "money primaries" conducted behind closed doors will overshadow the voting ones.
One possible reform is being pushed by Bill Jones, California's Republican secretary of state, and William Galvin, his Democratic counterpart in Massachusetts. The Jones-Galvin team would replace the existing rush of primaries in early March with a more measured schedule. After the traditional campaign kick-off in Iowa and New Hampshire, which the plan would leave unchanged, the primaries would consist of four regional contests: in the East, the South, the Midwest and the West. The four votes would be held between March and June, at a steady rate of one a month. To make the process fair, the order in which the regions vote would rotate each cycle.
The main attraction of this reform lies in its proposed timing. At present, the primaries are so bunched up that only the best financed candidates can afford the simultaneous ad campaigns that are entailed. A more leisurely schedule would open things up: A candidate who did well in the cheap retail campaigning of the early primaries would have time to raise money on the strength of that performance, and then use the cash to compete in the next round of voting. Primary votes would thus start to influence money flows, instead of just the other way around. And voters might respond by turning out in greater numbers.
Naturally, reform has its opponents. Some object that Iowa and New Hampshire ought to lose their privileged places in the calendar. But these states have a record of imposing rigorous and useful tests on candidates at farm fairs and town halls; besides, they would kill any plan that threatened them. Others will quibble about the composition of each regional block, or protest that the whole notion of organizing primaries by region is redundant.
No plan will please everybody, but this one seems worth exploring seriously. It has the backing of several national groupings representing state officials; and now the two parties, as well as the National Governors' Association, are due to consider the plan too. They should review it expeditiously, before the useful frustration born of this year's money primary starts to dissipate.