Monday, August 22, 2005

Better Luck Next Time?
It might seem strange to be thinking about February 2008 while in the midst of a sweltering August 2005, but that's what Democratic speechwriter/pundit Kenneth Baer is doing in this New Republic article on changes to the party's nominating process. A party commission, co-chaired by former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Congressman David Price, is meeting with groups around the country to consider alterations to the timetable, sequencing and guidelines for the nomination race.

As usual, the biggest focus is on whether Iowa and New Hampshire should maintain their all-but-decisive importance in the contest. Critics charge, justifiably, that "[t]hese states don't have enough minorities; they lack a large concentration of union members; they are without a major city." But despite their evident lack of general-election predictive power (in 2000, George W. Bush lost the New Hampshire primary, but won the state over Al Gore that November; last year, John Kerry memorably won Iowa but lost it, narrowly, to Bush in the general election) and the significant differences between small-state and national voters, Iowa and New Hampshire are almost determinative as far as who gets the nod. You have to go back to 1992, when home-state/region favorites Tom Harkin and Paul Tsongas won Iowa and New Hampshire respectively, to find a nominee of either party who didn't win in those first two states.

Baer makes a strong case against the argument that the "retail politics" candidates must practice in Iowa and New Hampshire serves as some kind of proving ground:

Conventional wisdom, which like a good student of American politics I once faithfully subscribed to, has held that the longer nominating process the better, as it allows a candidate to meet more voters, emerge to challenge an established favorite, and be vetted over a long and perhaps bruising process. Think Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Gary Hart in 1984. But in the past 20 years the ways in which campaigns are funded, run, and covered by the media have changed to such a degree that the extended primary season of today is now as out of date as the smoke-filled rooms of the '40s and '50s.

The current president offers perhaps the best example of this paradigm shift. When Granite State voters had months of close-up exposure to George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000, it clearly didn't do the Texas governor much good: John McCain, a master of retail campaigning who enjoyed the up-close contact and back-and-forth with voters as obviously as the super-scripted Bush detested it, won a resounding 19-point victory. Bush reversed his fortunes in the race before the next primary in South Carolina, burying McCain under an avalanche of money and slander; the media never really punished him for his clear deficiencies in "connecting with the voters" on issues of substance.

Thus for Iowa and New Hampshire. Baer goes on to make a positive case for what the Price-Herman Commission should do: further front-load the process, in effect using the primary contest as a dress rehearsal for November.

[W]hat the Commission and DNC do have power over is the "window," the time in which states must select their delegates to the nominating convention. And by closing the window earlier and opening it later--that is, shortening the nominating season from four months to one, and moving it later in the year from early February to the middle of March--the DNC can create a nominating system that increases rank-and-file participation and produces a candidate and campaign team that has been tested in conditions most resembling the general election.

By compacting the calendar into a four-week window in March, press coverage and voter interest would intensify--and not just in Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates would have more of an incentive to campaign--not just fundraise--in voter-rich states such as New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California. In addition, they would have a huge incentive to begin using new ways to reach voters--such as niche cable stations like Outdoor Life Network or Bravo, ethnic media such as Univision, the Internet, and peer-to-peer organizing--which, as seen in the 2004 general election, Democrats have yet to master.

By approximating the pace and scope of a general election campaign, a month-long sprint of primaries would be a much more effective dry run for a candidate and his staff--weeding out the candidates and consultants who lack the imagination and appeal to reach beyond core Democratic constituencies in select states. Of course, any candidate who made it to the starting line would have already passed a high bar--the scrutiny not of the "boys on the bus," but the bloggers on bandwidth. The invisible primary is hardly invisible; it is, in fact, when most campaigning takes place. And with a 24-hour political press, along with hundreds of political bloggers, the scrutiny during this period in 2008 will be as intense as any month during the old system. A longer "official" primary system is unnecessary.

There's something about this move that might not sit well with Democratic primary voters. The appeal of small-group conversations with concerned citizens, dozens and dozens of "Town Hall" meetings and house parties in which contenders painstakingly build credibility in tiny New England hamlets and corn-belt towns, is real and in a sense legitimate. But if Democrats are going to craft a process that gives their nominee the best real chance to win the White House, maybe it's time we stop considering politics as we'd like it to be, and start thinking about it as is.

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