Friday, June 13, 2008

The Race Is Over... Now What?

By Thomas Gangale
13 June 2008

Now that the Clinton-Obama drama is over, in the calm before the national conventions and the kickoff of the autumn campaign, pundits will cast about for some other presidential election issue to fill up air time and column space. Some will reflect on this year's nomination process and schedule, on what went right and what went wrong, and on what changes might be made for 2012. There are a lot of voices out there for changing the process, and I'm one of them, but each of us has his own set of assumptions and conclusions.

The front-loaded schedule, with so many states voting on the first Tuesday in February, should have determined the nominees of both major political parties very early. In part, the schedule was actually designed to do that, although it is also true that the schedule is in part a "tragedy of the commons" result of states pushing and shoving to the front of the calendar. So, regardless of one's opinion on front-loading, this year's calendar was a partial success and a partial failure. John McCain sewed it up early, Barack Obama didn't. Why such different outcomes?

A quick victory like McCain's has become the norm over the past 20 years; it was the Obama-Clinton saga that was the fluke. No one predicted that the Democrats would have two such evenly matched candidates. But, removing the element of random chance, what made the difference was the winner-take-all contests in the Republican Party, which magnified McCain's advantage over his rivals. In contrast, the string of victories that Obama racked up wasn't enough to put him over the top early, for in every state that she lost, Hillary Clinton took a big bite of delegates. As a result, there is some grumbling among top Democrats about going back to winner-take-all contests, which the party began phasing out in 1972. In other words, the solution is for the Democratic Party to operate more like the Republican Party. That's not the Democratic Party I would want.

On the other hand, some Democrats have concluded that the system worked well this year, that the protracted struggle between Obama and Clinton was good for the party, and that no changes are necessary for 2012. They stayed in the media limelight while McCain was relegated to the shadows. They rained punches on each other and got into condition for the main event, while McCain has yet to take a hard blow. I agree, but after March 4, Clinton and Obama were really just sparring partners. With most of the primaries and caucuses behind them, barring a catastrophic gaffe or scandal, Clinton had no chance of overtaking Obama in the dribble of remaining contests, so the next two months were an empty charade.

So, a structural change in the nomination system is necessary, but Democrats don't need to revert to winner-take-all. In a way, the calendar needs to be inverted, "back-loaded," if you will.

One good feature of the present system is that it begins with a few small states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. In theory, this would allow small, underfunded campaigns to take on the big dogs in small venues where money is less of a factor than in mass media markets. However, there is no good reason why it should be these four particular states leading the pack cycle after cycle. Other small states are just as deserving, so the selection should be by lottery. Also, a Super Tuesday on the heels of the first few small states magnifies their importance. Landing one-two punches in Iowa and New Hampshire virtually assures victory on Super Tuesday, so that's where the big money gets spent, and the underfunded candidate is blown off the field. So, let's put Super Tuesday at the end of the calendar rather than near the beginning. This would allow for true "retail politicking" at the beginning of the calendar, giving small campaigns an opportunity to grow from early victories and compete with the well-financed campaigns in later, bigger states. Also, a protracted contest would have real meaning right up to the end, when the big prize of delegates would be waiting to be taken. Again, the states participating in Super Tuesday should be determined by random selection, as should all of the states at the beginning and in the middle of the calendar. This way, over several cycles, the advantage of one state of another cancels out, and voters across the nation are treated fairly.

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