Our presidential primary system has been getting criticism lately, some of it deserved. But even with its flaws, at least the binding primary system is a lot more democratic than the old days when political bosses in dark, smoke-filled rooms decided who the candidates would be. And it's about to become even more democratic.
We're all used to seeing candidates in places like Iowa and New Hampshire pretending to enjoy the sub-zero weather as they kick off the "primary season." But now somewhere between ten and twenty states will have their primaries on Feb. 5, 2008. And Nevada recently announced that it plans on having its primary even earlier — on Jan. 19, wedged between the Jan. 14 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 21 New Hampshire primary. Why are all these states rushing to have their primaries so early?
More and more, the early caucuses and primaries have become very important. Probably too important. Campaigning is so expensive and so dependent on contributions that one's showing in these early contests often determines whether a candidate continues or drops out of the campaign.
So it's possible that in the recent past, the best candidates haven't even gotten a chance to run for president just because people in Iowa and New Hampshire didn't like them. Maybe these unfortunate candidates just didn't know enough about Iowa wrestling, or that the state insect of New Hampshire is the ladybug. Sorry, you can't be president.
Because of this "undue influence" of a few states with early caucuses and primaries, this time around, more and more states want to get in on the action. So instead of voters from a few states determining which candidate has momentum and which candidate is through, voters from all over the country will help decide who their party's nominee for president will be. That's the good news.
The bad news is that it's going to happen so early. We could know who the Republican and Democratic nominees for president will be on Feb. 5 — a full nine months before the election. All of the mystery, the wonder, and the "what ifs" of the campaign could be over. In February! I don't want to know who the presidential nominees are before some people in my neighborhood take down their Christmas decorations.
This rush to have the primaries earlier than necessary reminds me of the people who buy their Sunday newspaper on Saturday. I always wonder, what do they do all Sunday morning?
But more importantly, is it the best thing for the country to hurry the primary season? Won't some voters feel rushed into making a decision? And candidates are going to be traveling so fast in their private jets from state to state that their heads will be spinning. We'll hear things like, "It's great to be here in my favorite state, South ... I mean, North Carolina." They'll be whisked away by their handlers in the middle of a speech: "My position on the war is quite simple. I believe we should ... sorry, gotta go."
Instead of all the states rushing to have early primaries, I think all the states should have a "later primary." A National Primary would be a good idea, with all the states voting on the same day. But not in February.
Give us a chance to get to know these candidates, and give them a chance to mess up or surprise us with some great idea. My recommendation is that we have a National Primary in June. June would be perfect. Candidates and voters won't feel rushed, and it would be a nice break for me from watching the Cubs' pitching fall apart.
However we tweak the primary system, there will be problems. But again, it's certainly more democratic than having those cigar-chomping, deal-making bosses of yore deciding who should be the candidates, election after election.
And yet, that brings up a troublesome question. It's true that years ago, because of the binding primaries, we changed things so that the voters get to determine who the party nominees are instead of just the party insiders deciding. But since reforming the system, do we always come up with better candidates and better presidents than those guys in the smoke-filled rooms did for all those years? I'm just not sure.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver