by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
Super-Tuesday, Super-Duper Tuesday, Tsunami Tuesday. Whatever you call it, today is the big day. Record turnouts are expected here in Missouri and in the 21 other states that are voting today. Most likely, the Democratic and Republican nominees will be chosen by the end of the night, effectively ending the presidential nomination process a full seven months before the party conventions and nine months before the general election.
Despite the excitement that today’s election day brings, there are some very big problems with our current primary process, and it is becoming clear that this method of choosing nominees is increasingly undemocratic.
The biggest problem with the current process is front-loading: choosing nearly half of the delegates in one early election. This quickened primary timeline leaves a lot of voters out of the process entirely and allows only those candidates who can raise a lot of money to compete. Candidates who have big money are more likely to succeed in these front-loaded primaries, whereas a candidate who has big ideas that might begin to resonate with voters over several months doesn’t have enough time to get his or her message out.
Front-loading also causes an over- emphasis on the states that vote earlier, namely Iowa and New Hampshire, because these early wins can be translated into campaign donations and media coverage.
This primary schedule also favors big money over big ideas in other ways. The nominees chosen today will have the nine months between now and the general election when they don’t have to court voters face to face. Instead, they will spend most of that time courting big donors to raise money for running campaign commercials in the seven to nine “battleground states” where the election will be decided. And despite all the hype about small donors in recent political campaigns, it is still the large donors who provide the bulk of the cash to run campaigns and have the most access to candidates and officeholders.
Media outlets encourage the acceleration of the primary schedule by covering the election only as a horse race. They refuse to take the time to explain the intricacies of policy and government to the voters or to provide more than a sound bite of coverage at a time. Media owners seem to like the accelerated schedule that emphasizes big money and big media buys; every election is more and more profitable for the big media outlets.
If this trend continues, it is likely that we’ll see a bulk of the primaries being held before Christmas 2011 and presidential nominees being selected a full year before the general election. Expect the automated telephone calls to start in late 2009 …
Slowing down the primary process would allow more people to participate and hear directly from the presidential candidates. Fortunately, there is a brief window of opportunity to fix the primary process between now and the summer conventions. At the conventions, the parties can take action on reforming the system. The GOP started to address this issue in 2000 only to have it silenced at the convention by their nominee’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, who saw discussion by delegates as interference in the scripted convention show.
Several former politicians and leaders from both major parties have joined to form “Fix the Primaries,” an organization that is lobbying both parties to consider a change. At their Web site, www.fixtheprimaries.com, they have catalogued and explained eight different proposals for reforming the primary system. Each of the proposals has its pluses and minuses, and they provide a starting point for discussion.
Convention delegates are locked into voting for a particular candidate at the conventions. In reality, passing primary reform is about the only way that delegates can have a real impact at the convention. As delegates are being selected, the local political parties should look to those who are open to discussing the issue of primary reform to represent them at the national conventions in the summer.
After the conventions, there will be little interest by either party in reforming this system. And certainly in 2012, the incumbent president and his or her party will not want to change the process to allow challengers to have a better opportunity at the nomination.
This is the first year since 1928 that there has not been an incumbent president or vice president in the primaries and the first year since 1952 that there won’t be an incumbent president or vice president running in the general election. It might be another 50 years until there is another chance to reform the primary process. I hope Democrats and Republicans will seize this opportunity to ensure future presidential candidates are selected through a more democratic process.