Thursday, March 30, 2006

Primary dynamics

Via The Hill newspaper, the Florida legislature is considering a bill that would move the state's primary up, just one week after the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.
"We're not doing it to offend anyone," Marco Rubio (R) said via speakerphone to reporters assembled for a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. But, he explained, "Florida is a socioeconomic microcosm of the United States, [and it] has very little voice in the selection of the nominees."
Though Rubio claims this move will place more importance on Florida, all it will really do is place more importance on Iowa and New Hampshire. WIth only a week between New Hampshire and Florida, there is no time for any significant changes to take place in the campaign, so the Florida primary will largely be determined by the momentum dynamics emerging from New Hampshire, which will result from the momentum of Iowa. Instead of making the early primaries more representative of the nation at whole, moving the Florida date up does nothing more than place even MORE importance on the unrepresentantive states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

To truly change the dynamics of the primary, and place more emphasis on substantive differences between the candidates rather than the "momentum" game that ended up giving John Kerry the nomination in '04, one of two changes should be made:

1) Make a state like Florida, Michigan, Virginia, etc, the FIRST primary, before Iowa or New Hampshire. This would make candidates appeal to states that are truly representative of the nation, rather than pandering to the ethanol-loving, 99% white Iowa, or the similarly homogenous New Hampshire. Placing one of these states' primaries soon after New Hampshire and Iowa is actually counter-productive, since it will simply be vulnerable to the momentum dynamics of the earlier competitions.

2) If New Hampshire or Iowa refuse to budge, as is likely the case, make a state like Florida the first primary after New Hampshire, but leave some time between them. This would preserve the first-in-the-nation status of Iowa and New Hampshire, give more importance to a diverse, large state like Florida, while at the same time making it more immune to the boomerang effect of New Hampshire and Iowa.

Presidential primaries used to take months, with the contest still up for grabs for a few weeks after Super Tuesday. In '04, the contest was basically over after New Hampshire, and arguable even after Iowa. Kerry came from behind to win Iowa, used the momentum to edge out Dean in New Hampshire, and from then on out was the presumed nominee. Super Tuesday was super in name only; by the time the candidates stepped foot in California Kerry was already pondering his VP candidate.

Proponents of Iowa and New Hampshire's near sacred status as the first contests in Presidential primaries claim that the "retail politics" required in those states assure that a solid campaigned with a likeable personality will emerge as the nominee. This may or may not be true (again, Kerry was not the most affable guy in the world). But if we take for granted that New Hampshire and Iowa have their advantages, we should at least balance them with states that demand broad-based appeals to diverse constituencies. The only way we can do this is moving states like Florida, Michigan or California up in the nomination process, but leave them relatively immune from the momentum-swing coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire. If they are only going to reflect the dynamics of New Hampshire, they will only give MORE importance to that primary, not less.


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