Vox Populi
A Letter to the Editor
 
 

A Proposed Schedule of Presidential Primaries
Friday, August 3, 2007

by Christopher R. Wolfe
Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies,
Miami University,
Oxford, Ohio

This is the most wide-open presidential primary season in memory and, unfortunately, our primary system is broken. I propose a schedule of presidential primaries designed to put presidential candidates through a meaningful selection process and make voters in all states feel included in contested primary elections.

The system that has been in place is clearly at the breaking point. For years voters in states holding late primaries have felt disenfranchised, believing that the race was over before they had the opportunity to participate. In response to those concerns many states have begun to leap frog one another in an effort to increase their influence. February 5, 2008 is shaping up as "Super Duper Tuesday" with at least 14 and perhaps as many as 20 states holding caucuses or primaries on that date.

This results in two serious problems. First, voters in states holding primaries after that date will rightly complain that their votes are all but meaningless. More importantly, placing so many primaries on one day in February further increases the primacy of early fundraising, TV advertising, and staged events. It also decreases the influence of "retail politics," i.e. in-depth interactions with real voters. What is needed is a primary schedule that puts presidential candidates "through their paces" and makes voters in every state feel that their votes count.

Of course, we could hold all of the primaries on the same day. This would take care of the problem of late state disenfranchisement, but would be a grave mistake. In many years no candidate would earn more than 50% of the delegates leading to a series of brokered conventions. Candidates with less money and name recognition simply would not have the opportunity to make themselves known to voters. Our country is better served by a process that unfolds over time in which candidates are vetted in small face-to-face settings as well as debates, interviews with local and national media, the Internet, large rallies, and national addresses.

The National Association of Secretaries of State has proposed a series of four (4) regional primaries with a different order in different election cycles (see http://www.nass.org). This proposal is flawed in several respects. First, although things will ultimately even out, voters in the fourth region (east, south, Midwest, or west depending on the year) will still be disenfranchised in any given election. The system also suffers from political bias. For example, years when the southern region went first might easily include (or exclude) different candidates then years when the New England states went first. Finally, with the exception of traditionally first Iowa and New Hampshire, regional primaries deprive voters of the opportunity to see candidates in smaller settings.

The schedule that I propose is founded on the following 6 principles:

  1. Make voters in every state feel that their votes count in all seriously contested Presidential primaries;
  2. Require candidates to engage in "retail politics" before relying on mass media;
  3. Reduce or eliminate any political or regional bias built into the schedule;
  4. Ensure that candidates face a diverse electorate early in the process and that voters from various ethnic groups are not under-represented in the early going;
  5. Make candidates alternate between liberal and conservative states in the early primaries to avoid a distorted sense of momentum caused solely by the schedule;
  6. Provide candidates with multiple strategies for getting their messages out.

The basic logic behind the proposal is to put the smallest states first followed by increasingly larger states with a Super Tuesday at the very end but before the race is over electing about half of the delegates. The smaller-to-larger system is modified slightly to allow for some grouping by region and ensure that there is no major political bias between the early states and the Super Tuesday states at the end.

I used Electoral College votes as a measure of each state's size, since they are part of the delegate allocation formula used by both major parties and it also makes it easy to think about representation in the general election. I use each state's percentage of voters who voted for President Bush in 2004 as an index to conservatism. States with fewer that 47% of the voters backing Bush in 2007 can be considered relatively liberal, states where between 47% and 53% of the vote went to Bush can be considered moderate, and states with more that 53% supporting President Bush in 2004 can be considered conservative.

A table of proposed Presidential primary and caucus dates, with additional data including the number of Republican and Democratic delegates elected from each state, that spells out a week-by-week proposed primary schedule can be found at http://tappan.wcp.muohio.edu/home/WolfePrimaryCaucusSchedule.pdf.

Following tradition, I suggest Iowa as the first caucus state and New Hampshire as the first state to hold a primary. I would put them both on February 11. Week 2 has primaries or caucuses in Alaska, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, Delaware, and New Mexico. This diverse set of small states (plus D.C.) only account for about 3.3% of the population, but has relatively large numbers of African American voters in Washington, D.C., Asian voters in Hawaii, Hispanic voters in New Mexico, and Native American voters in Alaska. Liberals are over-represented in D.C. while conservatives dominate Alaska. A candidate might choose to concentrate on, or ignore, any of these states. It would be harder for the media elites to write off a candidate who doesn't finish at least second in Iowa or New Hampshire. Indeed by the end of week two only about 5% of the voters will have spoken.

Weeks three, four, and five swing to the more conservative western states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming followed by the more liberal New England states of Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts and then the more conservative southern states of Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia. By this stage candidates have been judged by voters in 20 states with a conservative edge of only 1 state, yet less than 19% of the delegates have been selected.

By this point one would reasonably expect that most long-shot candidates have dropped out or been discredited. Yet unlike the current schedule candidates in the second and third position should have strong showings somewhere to build upon. Although voters in these first states have access to the full range of candidates, voting later has advantages too. Are supporters of long-shot candidates always better off having their favorite candidates in the field? Not necessarily. If it isn't "in the cards" for candidate Smith to win more than 10% of the votes I think his or her supporters are better off choosing among the two or three candidates who actually have a chance at winning the nomination. While political pundits will always be quick to declare a candidate finished or a race over, this schedule makes such predictions more perilous as candidates move from Wyoming to Vermont to Kentucky in a span of three weeks. Significantly, the relative importance of Iowa and New Hampshire are actually diminished in the proposed schedule because they are followed by more relatively small and medium sized states rather than a must-win early Super Tuesday.

Weeks 6 through 11 swing back and forth between the conservative west, moderate and liberal Great Lakes, conservative middle west, liberal mid Atlantic, conservative south, and a mix of liberal, moderate, and conservative western states. After 11 weeks voters in 38 states and D.C. will have cast ballots, yet only about half of the voters will have spoken. In Electoral College terms, those states represent 268 of 538 (49.8%) of the vote. Of course, many of the smaller states tend to be more conservative, and the Bush 2004 states net out as +7 after 11 weeks compared to +4 on Super Tuesday. However, this schedule stills ensures that the Super Tuesday states are approximately as conservative as the proceeding states. As an index to conservatism, we can multiply the percentage of Bush voters in 2004 by the number of Electoral College votes. This proposed schedule gives the early states a conservative index of 138.5 and the subsequent Super Tuesday states a conservative index of 137.3 nearly identical scores.

I would give candidates three weeks to campaign before Super Tuesday. In the schedule I propose the primaries would end on May 12 (week 12 of voting) with the 12 states of California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia participating in Super Tuesday. With about half of the delegates still up for grabs it is unlikely that Super Tuesday voters will feel their votes don't count. Of course, in many years primary candidates (particularly sitting presidents) are all but unopposed, and no schedule can guarantee that a primary race will remain viable from start to finish. Yet this schedule gives viable candidates many avenues to make themselves contenders going into Super Tuesday. If this schedule were in place this year, I would predict that both the Democrats and Republicans would have two or three viably contending candidates in the running going into Super Tuesday.

The choosing of a President is the most important task of the American electorate. The process of electing candidates should be fair to all voters and allow us to scrutinize candidates through a rigorous and meaningful process. I believe this proposed Presidential primary and caucus schedule would achieve these goals and take a step toward returning our elections back to the voters.

Professor Christopher Wolfe
wolfecr at muohio dot edu


Mr. Berg-Andersson comments on behalf of 'The Green Papers':

A most worthy proposal- as good as any other, I suppose.

First of all, let me make it quite clear that neither I, personally- nor 'The Green Papers' editorially- has taken a position on how the Presidential Primaries and Caucuses should be scheduled, nor has a position necessarily been taken by us in favor of changing the current system in the first place!

I will here only note that I have to wonder just what institution or body would be charged with implementing and enforcing Professor Wolfe's proposal:

As I myself pointed out in a response to a 'vox Populi' re: this subject back on 21 November 2003, Congress has absolutely no constitutional authority to at all regulate the nomination of candidates for President and Vice President of the United States (perhaps ironically, then, the Federal legislature is denied a power by its own Constitution that the legislatures of the several States actually have via their own Constitutions: that is, the power to control the methodology by which candidates for the jurisdiction's highest elective offices are to be chosen). It would, therefore, take a Constitutional Amendment to give Congress such power (and I was either bold or merely abjectly egoistic enough to even suggest the necessary contents of just such an Amendment back on 17 January 2004, an Amendment which- subject to the limitations of my own attempts at legislative draftsmanship, covered all the issue I feel would need to be addressed (the protection of the ability of Third Party and Independent candidates for President to run for that office).

By the way, I received a fair share of negative comment as regarded my proposed Amendment (for example: a 'vox Populi' dated 16 June 2004 and an even earlier one from 19 January 2004): thus, I am well aware that my proposed Amendment is not necessarily the "be all and end all" when it comes to this subject of how best to nominate presidential and vice-presidential candidates-- indeed, I only intended my Amendment to be a potential starting point for serious discussions on the subject.

At any rate, the Congress of the United States- at least as of this typing [;-)]- cannot at all implement or enforce Professor Wolfe's proposed Primary/Caucus schedule.

This means that it has to- by default- be left to the States and/or to the Parties (meaning the two Major Parties, of course) to adopt Professor Wolfe's schema and, as I've written before on this website, I haven't seen any real interest whatsoever in improving the situation (whether via Professor Wolfe's concept or any other well-reasoned schedule) on the parts of either institution. The States have already quite clearly indicated, into and throughout this calendar year 2007, how they would go about changing things- that is, by front-loading Primaries and Caucuses "big time" in a jockeying for political (read "fund-raising") advantage, while the (Major) Parties themselves do not seem the least bit predisposed to do anything about this situation either (if anything, their threat to "punish" Florida- the 29 January 2008 Primary of which violates rules in both Major Parties- suggests that the Major Parties are quite happy with States moving their delegate selection events around the calendar, so long as- except for the same traditionally early States Professor Wolfe's own proposal includes- no State dares do so before the first Tuesday in February!). [2008 Chronological Cumulative Allocation of Delegates -Ed.]

Therefore: as regards Professor Wolfe's proposal, I can only- once again- quote from my responses to some of the 'vox Populi' on this subject already cited above:

"Ain't happenin'!"... its worthiness notwithstanding!

 


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