Sunday, February 17, 2008

This year shows why primary system must change

By Joshua Spivak
San Francisco Chronicle
10 February 2008

After years in which party presidential nominees are effectively chosen before most voters cast their ballots, 2008's primary season has been a refreshing breath of fresh air, with real races lasting through most of the primaries - if not beyond, as we might see with the Democrats. However, it is also clear that despite this year's excitement, the two parties should look to seriously revamp their nomination systems to avoid alienating their electorate. This year's primary campaigns highlighted glaring deficiencies, one of which - the superdelegates - might still cause a giant headache for the Democrats. But if reforms are not made, future presidential races may erode trust in the selection process.

There are two main reasons that 2008 saw an exciting election, both of which have nothing to do with the candidates or issues. The first was an anomaly. It was clear since President Bush was re-elected that 2008 would be the first time in more than a half a century where neither an incumbent president nor an incumbent vice president would receive one of the parties' nominations. The lack of an incumbent who could take credit or blame for the actions of the Bush administration radically changed the dynamic of the elections. No candidate was truly able to run on, or be forced to defend, the Bush record. The other side of this coin was at work in the Democratic primary. Even though the race was shaped by an anti-Bush sentiment, the Democrats were not able to run simply as the most electable, as the opponent, whose strengths and weaknesses were unknown. The 2012 election will probably return to the more traditionally structured environment, with the 2008 winner almost certain to seek re-election.

The other major event was the nationwide rush by states to move up their party primaries to an earlier date - resulting in more than half the voters casting their ballot on Super Tuesday. The states moved up after absorbing a painful lesson: The presidential primaries could be effectively over after only a small fraction of the voters had their say. Therefore, the states decided that the earlier the vote, the better the chance that candidates will pay attention to them. The rush to early primaries has caused an immediate problem for the Democrats. Michigan and Florida, as a punishment for moving their primary elections way up, have been stripped by the party of their delegates. Whether to rescind the punishment and seat these delegates may actually be the question that decides the nomination. If it grants Michigan's and Florida's demands to have their delegates seated (which would substantially help Hillary Rodham Clinton), the Democratic Party is opening itself up to every state jumping to the front in 2012. If the party denies the two states their convention votes, it may cost the nominee two key swing states in November.


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