Recently, Florida once again entered the center of a presidential political storm. The state was at the vanguard of the movement to flout the national parties’ rules against early primaries, moving up its primary to Jan. 29, 2008, a week after New Hampshire’s. Now, as state after state has followed Florida’s lead, the political parties are in a panic, threatening to strip the early voting states of their primary votes. Presidential candidates also have been pushed to promise not to campaign in any state that holds its primary before Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet with all this mess, Florida may have been doing the nation a favor, one that could propel real changes to an unwieldy, unfair and broken presidential nomination system.
Florida, and all of the other early primary states, actually were late to the “moving up your primary date” game. They moved up their voting dates only after more than half the states, including California and New York, had changed their primaries to Feb. 5. Since then, there has been a rush to the front of the class. Michigan and Wyoming are the latest states to have pushed up their primary dates, thumbing their collective noses at Democratic and Republican national committee rules banning all but a handful of states from holding primaries or caucuses until two weeks after New Hampshire votes.
In response, the parties have ratcheted up the rhetoric. Both national committees have threatened to not recognize 50 percent of the delegates selected by all of these states, as well as all of the state’s superdelegates. The Republican Party has threatened sanctions against every state that holds an early primary, even New Hampshire. The Democratic Party is stating it will withhold votes from candidates who campaign in any of these states. The party is so intent on making an example of Florida that Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean was quoted as saying “the primary essentially won’t count.”
It is no surprise that the parties are now taking such a strong stand. After all, they are largely responsible for this failure. For some time, it has been crystal clear that most of the country feels cut out of the presidential nominee selection process. And yet, the two parties basically ignored the problem. The Democratic National Committee did hold a meeting in 2006 to try to reform the primary process. But with New Hampshire and Iowa leading the opposition, they failed miserably, only agreeing to minor cosmetic changes to the process.
What the national parties failed to appreciate was the fact that political leaders in the states have learned the painful lesson of the past few elections. For example, in 2004, the Democratic presidential primaries were effectively over after only a small fraction of the voters had their say. Despite having 10 relatively substantial candidates seeking the nomination, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — who was treading water in the polls a few months before — appeared to lock up the nomination very shortly after New Hampshire’s vote. Most of the nation’s primaries were academic. It was strikingly clear to most observers that the current presidential nominee selection process has broken down, after only a generation of use.
Rather than deal with the real issue, they have focused on punishing the leapfrogging states — at their own peril, of course, as Florida undoubtedly will play a critical role in the general election. Now, the system will demand a quick decision, with the first states and the media possibly playing an even more crucial role in pushing forward an early winner in New Hampshire and Iowa.
One of the unintended consequences of the front-loaded vote could be that for the first time in a generation the political conventions, rather than voters, will chose one or both of the parties’ nominees. This may happen if enough voters split their votes and no candidate ends up with a majority of votes prior to the convention. The choice then will be thrown to the convention floor. Even though primaries were intended to remove the power of the conventions, political leaders will be back in charge of the process, horse-trading their way to the nomination.
As with any tough issue, there is no magic bullet to solve the presidential selection problem. A one-day national primary, which voters preferred according to a recent survey, almost certainly would result in convention-brokered nominees. Probably the most widely espoused measure would be to reject the federalist principles that allow each state to set its own primary date and instead force the parties to create a handful of dates for regional primaries, much like the “Super Tuesdays” of old. For example, all of the Northeastern states would vote on one date and all of the Midwestern states would vote on another. Regional primaries would at least allow the smaller states to not be completely ignored, an event very likely to occur in the one-day primary system. It remains to be seen if the national committees have the ability to push these changes forward, but it is at least finally clear that something needs to be done for 2012.
By challenging the two political parties, Florida and other states simply may have been trying to increase their own power in selecting presidential nominees. But, by shining a light on the failed presidential system, they may push the nation onto the right track to a needed reform of presidential selection politics.
Joshua Spivak is a public relations executive and attorney.