Goodbye, Super Tuesday
By W. James Antle III
"Vote early and vote often," was the operative phrase back when Richard Daley-style urban machine pols set the standard for political ethics. Today's good-government types may not agree with Daley about much, but they do want Americans to vote early if not often.
Dozens of state legislatures, jockeying for influence over the 2008 presidential nomination process (as well as spending on hotel rooms and advertising) have given them their wish. Even if we can avoid the spectacle of New Hampshirites trudging to the polls before Christmas, next year's condensed primary schedule is the closest to a national primary the United States has ever come.
On February 5, 2008 some 20 states will hold primaries or caucuses to select the major-party presidential nominees. The participants include some of the largest, most delegate-rich states in the country, including California, New York, New Jersey, and Tennessee. At the end of the day, the two parties will have chosen roughly 40 percent of their convention delegates. By the same point in 2000, only 2 percent of delegates had been chosen.
To keep the crush of states moving earlier in the calendar to a minimum, the Democratic and Republican national committees will impose penalties on primaries and caucuses -- excepting those held in New Hampshire and Iowa -- held before February 5. Yet the number of states choosing to participate in the supercharged Super Tuesday has nearly tripled since the beginning of 2007.
While the absurdity of adults having to utter the words "Super Duper Tuesday" is bad enough, the abbreviated calendar will have other consequences. Like the direct election of senators and efforts to enfeeble the Electoral College, this change will serve to weaken distinctive state and regional political cultures while strengthening powerful national political establishments. Even though Iowa and New Hampshire retain their first-in-the nation status, allowing candidates to pursue an early-state strategy rather than one predicated on a Super Tuesday sweep, it will be the well-funded establishment campaigns that benefit.
To be sure, lesser known mavericks like Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee or Dennis Kucinich could benefit from a stronger-than-expected showing in Iowa or New Hampshire. But even if one of them managed to win an early state, much less do better than the pundits predict, it is virtually impossible for them to raise enough money and then retool for the February 5 juggernaut. On the Republican side, the candidate with the most plausible early-state strategy is Mitt Romney, a heavily self-funded multimillionaire. Among the Democrats, it is Barack Obama, who actually outraised Hillary Rodham Clinton in the first three quarters of 2007.
Romney and Obama both hope that early state triumphs will give them a needed bounce in the polls going into February. But both will already have enough money to campaign widely and advertise simultaneously in multiple markets in order to augment the free media blitz. A Paul or Kucinich, meanwhile, would be highly vulnerable to a paid advertising onslaught by better-funded opponents -- and would be unable to respond in kind in most of the primary states.
Super Tuesday-style primary marathons haven't always worked out according to their architects' intentions. When Southern states clustered together their primaries in 1988 to help boost a moderate to conservative Democratic candidate, the change instead benefited the liberal Jesse Jackson, who did well with the South's heavily black Democratic primary electorate. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis ended up winning the nomination. But Super Tuesday proved decisive for Bill Clinton in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, and both Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000.
Gone are the days when relative long-shot candidates could win early, take time out to replenish their coffers, and continue the fight in other states. The present system would have hobbled Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 was at just 4 percent among Democrats in national polls before winning the Iowa caucuses. On the other side of the aisle that same year, Ronald Reagan's insurgent campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was battered and almost broke after losing a long string of primaries to President Gerald Ford. After an upset in North Carolina in March, Reagan came back to win twelve primaries and come within a state delegation of denying Ford renomination.
Even Bill Clinton, considered his party's frontrunner when many better-known Democrats took a pass on the 1992 presidential election, had a tough go of it. While remembered as the "Comeback Kid" in New Hampshire, he actually lost the primary to Paul Tsongas. He failed to win a single non-Southern state in the first five weeks of the campaign.
Rules that would hurt Carter, Reagan, and Clinton would almost certainly have doomed the candidacies of Barry Goldwater or George McGovern, who were facing better-funded opponents backed by their respective party establishments. Strong grassroots support, a longer primary calendar, and less restrictive campaign-finance regulations (Eugene McCarthy would never have been a factor in the age of McCain-Feingold) allowed them to overcome these obstacles that today would prove decisive.
Many of the arguments made for the condensed schedule -- some of them also marshaled on behalf of a national primary -- don't hold up under serious scrutiny. The first is that Americans quickly tire of long campaigns, and it is better to just get it over with. Anyone who has picked up a newspaper or watched CNN over the past few months can see how well this has worked. Instead of a longer primary battle during 2008, the Republican and Democratic candidates have been hitting the trail for all of 2007. If the major party nominees are chosen in early February, the general election campaign will in effect begin before the conventions. Instead of being shortened, the permanent campaign has merely been moved up -- if anything, it may even have been lengthened.
As noted earlier, the condensed primary schedule has not reduced the influence of money in the electoral process. If anything it privileges the candidates who can afford to advertise and campaign across vast swaths of the country at once, including some of the nation's most expensive media markets. Former governors have found themselves unable to raise sufficient funds to be competitive and dropped out of the race before 2008. Even John McCain, a four-term senator who finished second in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries, is virtually broke.
Both parties' frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani, have raised tens of millions of dollars and are well connected to Wall Street. The money primary is as important as ever. And before the election is held, experts believe we will witness the first $1 billion presidential campaign.
Some have hoped that the shorter primary schedule will somehow boost voter participation. If there is any truth to the cliché that most Americans don't tune into presidential campaigns before Labor Day, most voters have already missed the bulk of this campaign. The partisans and activists are as important as ever. As Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin put it, "The people who are being left out of this process are the voters, especially those who aren't active in party affairs."
Reformers who wish to control how and when Americans vote have already proposed constitutionally dubious "solutions" to all of these problems. Some have recommended a regional primary system, which would at least preserve the distinct (if radically depleted) political character of different parts of the country. Others have suggested breaking up the state primaries, allowing the small states to go first and the big ones to go last. This would help lower-tier candidates, as they would get to compete in the less expensive media markets first, and perhaps raise money over time if they do well in early contests.
But both of these proposed reforms would surely disadvantage particular candidates. Which region would get to vote first? Among Republicans, Giuliani would surely prefer the Northeast while Fred Thompson would obviously want the South. Similarly, what if a candidate hails from one of the small states that get to vote early? Would not his large-state competitors feel encumbered by going last?
Ceding that kind of power, traditionally reserved to the states and political parties, to the federal government would open the door for future changes that would be far less respectful of the regions and the states. Proponents of political decentralism would be ill advised to endorse an attack on federalism, even if it appears to initially advantage the parts of the country shortchanged by our current Super Duper Tuesday mania.
Yet even federalism is an imperfect instrument for safeguarding the competitiveness of the two parties' nominating process. The fact is that the state parties are dominated by political elites who wish to help the frontrunners gain, and thereby preserve their own, power. Long-shot candidates must content themselves with invitations to little-watched forums if they wish to gain a hearing from the broader public.
The columnist George Will argues that the "salient question" is: "Does today's process provide sufficient time and challenges to compel candidates to reveal their characters and skills?" It is the right question to ask (though his answer in the affirmative is rather debatable). The problem with the process is obvious: It is getting harder for candidates not beloved by the national media and party establishments to compete. The solution, alas, is rather elusive.
One thing is clear: If in 2012, the major parties choose 80 percent of their convention delegates on a single day the media breathlessly describes as "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Tuesday," we will be headed in the wrong direction.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.