Are Primaries Going West?

DNC floats a proposal to reform the primary system.

Christopher Moraff

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and the Michigan Democratic Party have called for reforms to the primary system.

In an early bid to affect the 2008 race, the DNC is floating a primary reform proposal that it hopes will address the system’s shortcomings. But is it enough?

On March 11, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted in favor of a proposal set forth earlier by its Commission on Presidential Nomination, Timing and Scheduling that would expand the presidential nomination process with the intention of creating a more level playing field. Refomers hope to pull in greater numbers of minorities and labor constituents and mitigate the phenomenon of front-loading” – a high concentration of early scheduled contests – by offering bonus delegates to those states that wait to hold their primaries. 

Increased front-loading means that nominations are secured before most Americans have had the chance to vote at all. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics found that in the run-up to the 2000 election, George W. Bush and Al Gore had all but locked up” their respective nominations by March 7 – before voters in 33 states cast their ballots.

The DNC’s solution is anything but radical, but it has raised the ire of New Hampshire’s political elite. Under the proposal, Iowa would remain the first caucus, and New Hampshire the first primary, but there would be one or two diverse caucuses” wedged in between. The plan also calls for possibly adding one or two primaries before the date after which any state may schedule a vote – currently set at February 5 – but after New Hampshire. 

The reforms aim to change a nomination system that rewards aggressive fundraising, media pandering and mindless handshaking in a handful of non-representative states. 

Decrying what they call the perpetual privilege” of Iowa and New Hampshire, Commission member Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and the Michigan Democratic Party had originally called for a series of six regional primaries (later modified to four), with a different region launching each presidential nominating season. We shouldn’t have a rule that some states are more equal than others,” Levin told the DNC commission. 

Since the DNC’s announcement, state representatives from Florida to Oregon have scrambled to stake their claim to the early primaries. By April 20, just six weeks after approving the measure, the DNC had reviewed presentations from 11 states and the District of Columbia. 

As it stands, the problems with the current delegate selection process can be traced to an aberrant relationship that emerged between candidates and the mainstream press following a 1969 decision by the two parties to shift to a system of state primaries and caucuses. The resulting system put way too much leverage in the hands of the media, effectively negating healthy discourse among the politically savvy. Consequently, what happens today in Iowa and New Hampshire determines which candidates will ride the media groundswell to nomination and which will inevitably fall by the wayside. 

In a September 2005 report, the 21-member, bi-partisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and fomer Secretary of State James A. Baker III, concluded: The presidential primary system is organized in a way that encourages candidates to start their campaigns too early, spend too much money, and allow as few as eight percent of the voters to choose the nominees. The primary schedule is in need of a comprehensive overhaul.”

Carter and Baker called for congressional action if the political parties themselves do not act by 2008 and endorsed Levin’s modified proposal.

A group called Democrats For The West would like to see that plan put into action. Since 2004 they’ve joined the Western Governors’ Association, the Western States Democratic Chairs’ Caucus, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and at least one Republican governor – Jon Huntsman of Utah – in lobbying for a western regional primary. Huntsman has signed legislation rewriting the state’s election law and has pledged $850,000 to the project.

Spearheading the effort for the Democrats is veteran Party activist Michael Stratton, a member of the DNC Commission that made the original recommendation. The future of the Democratic Party lies out west,” Stratton says, arguing that if the DNC is going to add early primaries, it should be in areas with a strong Democratic tradition. There are a lot of people who are hungry to come to the process,” Stratton says. If we’re adding states to the mix, I think we are all concerned that they be places where we can in fact win.”

Throughout the summer, the DNC will continue to deliberate its primary reform project. The Rules and Bylaws Committee is scheduled to meet again in July to review the state proposals. In lieu of a regional primary, which now appears unlikely for 2008, Democrats For The West has appealed to the DNC to reserve at least one of the early slots for a western state.

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Christopher Moraff writes about national politics, social justice and culture for a number of publications, including The American Prospect online, Design Bureau and The Philadelphia Tribune. His columns appear weekly on Philadelphia magazine’s blog The Philly Post. Moraff, who lives in Philadelphia, is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors.
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