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Primary Problem


It seems like forever ago, but by my reckoning, the 2008 presidential campaign officially began in earnest the moment Senator John Kerry conceded defeat to President Bush on Wednesday, November 3, 2004.

Since then, we’ve been subject to the equivalent of political Chinese water torture, slowly driving the nation mad with the incessant drip, drip, drip of speeches and debates and spin cycles. For those of you who prefer your pain administered with less subtlety, the good news is that entire states are now jockeying for position as presidential bellwether, falling all over themselves to see who can host the nation’s first primary. Apparently allowing insignificant states like Iowa and New Hampshire set the party nomination pace is not sitting well with other states, states that believe they are more important.

Just today, Michigan announced it has scheduled it’s presidential primary for January 15, while Nevada and South Carolina have already scheduled theirs for January 19, forcing New Hampshire to postpone scheduling its famous first-in-the-nation primary until it can be assured of maintaining that hallowed status. Iowa, which holds caucuses instead of a primary, is slated for January 14, but that may change before the shuffle is over. Florida’s in a smack-down with the Democratic Party over its attempts to move their primaries earlier in the cycle, hoping to remain presidentially relevant and give voters a reason to turn out by arguing that it matters more.

The Republican and Democrat parties have stepped in to establish rules that would punish states that schedule their primaries earlier than February 5 by limiting the number of delegates a state can send to the national convention. My Spot-on colleague Scott Olin Schmidt described further nuances (loopholes?) to the primary system that may render small state primaries irrelevant anyway. So on top of the all the political posturing by the 18 men and woman running for the nation’s highest elected office, we’ve got intra-party wrangling, and posturing on the parts of state legislatures and governors to contend with. It’s a bad situation that’s only gotten worse, particularly if, like me, you support “none of the above” when it comes to choosing a political affiliation.

My question to all of this is, why do we have a primary system anyway? And why is it treated with all the pomp and circumstance as the real election in November?

The short answer is history. Presidential primaries are how political parties pick their nominees. They were once private affairs conducted in the proverbial smoke-filled room, but over the last fifty years or so have grown into elaborate public relations events that perpetuate the notion that the United States of America is a two-party political system. The individual states willingly go along with the ruse – at taxpayer expense. But try asking for a Libertarian ballot on primary day and you are likely to be met with a quizzical stare. My tax levy, apparently, isn’t enough to cover the printing costs.

So just how much does a primary cost taxpayers? If you live in California, the February 5 primary will run at least $45 million costing taxpayers a total as high as $90 million since the state’s primary is still being held in June. Other states’ primaries aren’t as pricey, but the money still must come from somewhere, and it’s the taxpayers who suffer. That’s not lost on some politicians. During the 2004 race eight states decided to cancel their less-than-influential primaries rather than stick taxpayers with the bill because of their late spot in the rotation. Among them, Washington would have spent $6.8 million and Kansas $1.75 million.

Instead, the party apparatchiks in these states caucused; a noble choice, and one that would serve the nation much better.

Caucuses are democracy in action. They are more about organization than image, and require dedication on the part of the participants. Filling a bus with senior citizens doesn’t get it done in a caucus, where the process can take a full day. There’s no pussy-footing in line for a few minutes to duck behind a curtain and slip a ballot secretly into the counting machine. You gather proudly under the banner of your chosen candidate and get down to bare-knuckles political brawling.

In a well-run caucus, there will be numerous votes, and lesser candidates – Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich – can wheel and deal for surplus supporters from other candidates to leapfrog a rival in the standings. Early round losers may leave the caucus dejected that their support had no effect, or they may stay on to join with a contender to tip the balance for a candidate with similar positions, or against a candidate whose politics they find odious. Stalwart activists and the dedicated few can make a difference.

In 1992 I lived in Portland, Maine and was a precinct chairman for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign during that state’s final caucus (it switched to a primary system for the 1996 election). I managed to hold off a spirited run by the Tom Harkin campaign and hold on to third place. Buoyed by dedicated and enthusiastic supporters, Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas took the top two spots by a wide margin in Portland, and I worked hard to dissuade any of them from forming a coalition with Harkin’s team that would drop my guy down into fourth.

Caucuses work, they are fun, and they provide a means for political parties to do their business without sticking taxpayers with the bill. And they don’t serve as a form of state sponsored propaganda to perpetuate the false assumption that voters have but two legitimate choices. We’ll come back to this next week when I’ll discuss a plan to transform the primary system we’re stuck with into a more equitable, less arduous process.

Editor’s Note: Spot-on’s Scott Olin Schmidt hates the current primary set-up just as much as Mike does. Here’s his reasoning from earlier this year.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 2:55 PM | Permalink

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