Monday, May 12, 2008

Zigzagging Toward November

New York Times
5 May 2008

As the Democratic presidential contest slouches forward, the Republicans are wise to look ahead to 2012 and try to invent a better mousetrap than the jumbled primary system that they find occupying, if not entombing, the Democrats. The G.O.P.’s rules committee has offered a plan that attempts to find a better balance between “retail” politicking in smaller states and the inevitable big-money, heavy media campaigning in larger states.

The goal of a more measured and conclusive pace is well worth pursuing. But the scheme is already in doubt as Republican leaders in the larger states denounce it in advance of debate at the party convention in September.

Consider the crazy-quilt experience this year, in which a glut of states rushed forward to attempt a de facto national primary in February. Record turnouts have been followed by increasing confusion as various “showdown” votes roll forward three months later for the two Democratic finalists.

Twenty-year-old Democratic rules, rooted in arcane formulas about past Congressional turnouts, have awarded caucus and primary delegates proportionately, with, so far, a winner never quite winning and a loser never quite conceding. By now, the vaunted Democratic superdelegates are wary of their grand power to play Solomon by settling the competition in late August.

The Democrats cannot rewrite their rules in midrace, but voters must hope that some lessons are being learned and that appropriate changes will be attempted the next time around. In the Republican plan, the sticking point is that smaller states representing a quarter of the Electoral College clout would always vote first as a group (with, yes, Iowa and New Hampshire retaining their prom-queen status as separate openers). Three balanced groups of larger states would follow, rotating their positions in subsequent elections.

This, at least, is closer to a rotating regional primary system as proposed by the National Association of Secretaries of State — the model this page endorses.

Efforts to devise a better system may well founder in the tooth-and-claw state of politics, and with separate state parties and legislatures willing to freelance parochially this year against national party plans. Still, if only in the name of democracy, voters and candidates are entitled to dream of something better.

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