Fixing The Primary Problem

New Hampshire flag with hand dropping a vote into a ballot box.
This column was written by Bill Whalen.
Like Charlie Brown trying to kick a pigskin but always ending up supine, there's a foolish consistency to California's dream of a grander role in the presidential selection process.

Take, for example, the 1996 race. The Golden State figured it could play kingmaker by moving up its primary from the first Tuesday in June to March 26 of that year. Unfortunately, a few other states had the same idea — California ended up 32nd on that year's campaign schedule.

Four years later, Sacramento's best and brightest advanced the primary an additional three weeks to the first Tuesday in March. All that did was leave California 21st in line, again producing little drama. And so it was too in March 2004 — Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry had the nomination sewn up by the time California Democrats went to the polls.

So what's a nation-state to do? You guessed it. Last week, California's State Legislature voted to advance the presidential primary to Feb. 5 of next year. With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's presumed signature, the move would position California — along with at least eight other states — just a week after South Carolina's Jan. 29 primary (which is preceded only by Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire).

Here are two things you need to know about California's latest attempt to raise its self-esteem.

First, it's a scheme that serves a variety of self-serving agendas. Democrats see the early presidential primary as a vehicle for relaxing state Legislature term limits (a ballot initiative would change the law so that lawmakers can serve 12 years instead of the current 14; however, they could spend the entire time in one chamber). With California holding a primary for state officials in June, passing the initiative in February means the top two Democrats in Sacramento — Senate President pro Tem Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez — can avoid the term-limit noose this fall.

For Republicans, the carrot is the promise of a second ballot initiative that would hand over redistricting to an independent panel, perhaps weakening the Democrats' lock on both the Legislature and California's Congressional delegation. Not surprisingly, Democratic legislators, after months of saying that redistricting reform would be part of the deal, suddenly are balking at the idea. Schwarzenegger has said there will be no deal if redistricting isn't included.

And that wouldn't please the Governator, as a February primary may be his best chance to cast a shadow over the Republican field. Arnold can't run for president, but an early primary would force GOP hopefuls to visit the Golden State early and often, kissing his oversized lapis ring, and agreeing with Schwarzenegger on stem cells, global warming, and his decidedly non-conservative approach to governing.

And that leads us to the second ugly truth about this rescheduled primary: It's going to backfire, as it always does.

California may be the richest prize on Feb. 5, but it's doubtful that it's the best use of a candidate's time. That's because there are likely to be some attractive "consolation" prizes on the same date. At last report, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, Texas, and New Jersey all are considering crashing California's party. If they agree to the date, in addition to the eight states currently slated for Feb. 5, as many as 16 states could be up for grabs on that one day, dwarfing the dozen states that voted on March 7, 2000 (especially since 2008's "Super Tuesday" would include five of the nation's 10 largest states). The bottom line: a candidate could lose California but easily save face — even gain ground — by winning elsewhere.

Also, California's GOP primary isn't winner-take-all in terms of delegates. Instead, delegates are chosen according to the results in individual congressional districts. A Republican candidate could spend $5 million in TV ads, win the overall vote in California, but fail to win a majority of the delegates. Factor in time wasted flying to and from the coast, and it sounds like an unrewarding experience.

Unfortunately, California isn't the only loser in this game. So, too, is the presidential primary schedule, which is becoming frontloaded to the point of collapse.

That wasn't the case two elections ago. By Feb. 8, 2000, only three states — Iowa, New Hampshire and Delaware — had held GOP presidential contests. Four years later, 11 states held Democratic primaries or caucuses by Feb. 7. For 2008, with nearly two-fifth of the nation's states voting on or before Feb. 5, there's a good chance that both parties could decide their nominees a mere 22 days after the Iowa caucuses, leaving nine months for the general election.

Is there way around this mess? My suggestion is take what works for the National Basketball Association — the lottery it holds every year to determine the order for draft picks — and apply the same principle to the primaries states. Hold a random drawing a year before the primaries are scheduled to begin, and assign the 50 states and the District of Columbia their respective voting dates based on luck of the draw.

Here's how the plan would work.

Rule One: No presidential primaries or caucuses until the first Monday in February. Let the public have a peaceful January breaking resolutions and watching football.

Rule Two: Start the selection process with the same first four states as in 2008. Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina all are relatively small states. And they reflect four regions of the country with distinctly different economies and cultures. That makes for a level playing field.

Rule Three: Once those four states vote, the game changes. From here on, primaries are held among seven states, every Tuesday, for the following six weeks. That mix would include one "mega" state* with at least 20 electoral votes, three midsize states** with a minimum of 10 electoral votes, three smaller states*** worth four to nine electoral votes, plus one small state**** with three electoral votes (on the seventh Tuesday, one "mega" state, two midsized states and one small state would vote).

I conducted such a lottery with the aid of four baseball caps and one shredded piece of paper. Based upon the new rules, if this system were implemented a year ago, here's what the 2008 primaries would look like:

Feb. 5, Iowa

Feb. 10, Nevada

Feb. 13, New Hampshire

Feb. 20, South Carolina

Feb. 27, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oregon, Alaska

March 6, Illinois, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, North Dakota

March 13, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, South Dakota

March 20, Florida, Virginia, Minnesota, Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, District of Columbia

March 27, Texas, New Jersey, Indiana, Nebraska, Utah, Arkansas, Wyoming

April 3, New York, Missouri, Tennessee, Connecticut, Mississippi, West Virginia, Vermont

April 10, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, Delaware, Montana

Obviously, not every state would be pleased with this outcome. California, for example, once again would be preceded by roughly two dozen states. But there are ways to address the fairness system. One option would be to prevent the 14 states that voted on the first two "Super Tuesdays" from getting the same early start in the next election. And, just as there's a firewall in the NBA lottery that prevents the team with the worst record from finishing lower than fourth in the draft, this political lottery could guarantee that the seventh-week states would finish no lower than, say, the fourth week in the next election.

There are two major benefits to such a system. First, it would reverse this country's downward spiral toward a national primary that unfairly rewards better-known, better-financed candidates. And, by chewing up all of February and a good portion of March, it would fill the void between the Super Bowl and baseball's Opening Day.

And if a primary system can't do that — keep us entertained for at least a few weeks — then what good is it?

* The 7 "Mega"-states (20+ EVs): California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas

** The 14 "mid-size" states (10-19 EVs): Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin

*** The 18 "smaller" states (4-9 EVs): Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, West Virginia

**** The 8 "small" states (3 EVs): Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming

By Bill Whalen