Time for a new primary system—and here it is

As of today I’ve had it with the existing primary election system. I wouldn’t have said that, had a reader not sent me, by serendipity also today, an article describing a sensible alternative system. However, before we get to that, here is my particular peeve: it is that New Hampshire, the state long honored with the first and most influential primary in the country, allows non-affiliated persons to vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries. What an insult to democracy and to the very idea of a party selection process, that the “Republican” John McCain, who is more popular with Independents than with Republicans, who has frequently betrayed Republican principles and is widely hated by Republicans, gets to be the “winner” of the Republican primary and to be declared “front runner” for the GOP nomination, when it was Mitt Romney who won a majority of Republican votes in New Hampshire.

Listen, New Hampshirites, you have a beautiful state, and I have as much fondness for the exciting tradition of the New Hampshire primary as anyone. But your rules are irresponsible and your winners are no longer plausible GOP standard bearers (McCain by 18 points over Bush in 2000, McCain by six points over Romney this year). You’ve had your day in the sun and it’s time for you to move aside. Or, rather (see below), it’s time for you to share the first-in-the-country honors with other states, so that your own non-representative results can no longer play a decisive role.

Apart from the particular problem that one tiny state with absurd voting rules is allowed to be determinative for the entire country, there is the much larger problem that this year reached a crisis point. The understandable desire of states to be at the beginning of the process has resulted in an insane front-loading of primaries that has bent everything out of shape, requiring candidates to spend two years raising money before they contest for a single delegate.

Bobby Eberle, president of GOPUSA, has a helpful article summarizing what’s wrong with the current primary system and laying out four alternative systems that have been proposed. He prefers the one called the Delaware plan, and I agree with him. Here’s the way it would work:

Delaware plan: States broken into four groups by population. The smallest 12 states, plus federal territories, would vote first, followed by the next smallest 13 states, then the 13 medium-size states and finally the 12 largest states….

Under the Delaware plan, smaller states would go first in the process. This is a good practice in that 1) the smaller states (other than Iowa and New Hampshire) often get overlooked, and 2) candidates don’t have to worry about a large bankroll so early in the process. Success in smaller states has just as much to do with organization as it does with money—e.g. Mike Huckabee in Iowa. Candidates with lower name ID and money but who have a good message would have a better shot at scoring a victory or high finish and using those results to build some momentum and generate fundraising interest.

Then the candidates would move along to slightly larger states. More delegates would be at stake, but as the size of the state increases, the strategies for campaigning also change. Money becomes much more important, and candidates would have had more time under the Delaware Plan to raise money if they generated voter interest.

Eberle then quotes former RNC member John Ryder, who also favors the Delaware plan:

Nobody would be able to assemble a majority of the delegates until they got to that last group of states, which means that every state is in play.

There’s a beauty and a logic to it. The smallest states, coming first, get their day in the sun, allowing little known, cash-poor candidates to make their mark and generate momentum and funding, while also filtering out candidates who fail to impress themselves on voters. The somewhat larger states and the medium sized states, coming next and next, get their day in the sun, expanding the contest. The largest states, coming last, get their day in the sun, deciding the contest. The process builds naturally to a climax. No state is left out and each state performs a special function properly suited to its size.

* * *

Here is another advantage of the Delaware plan. Because, in any contested nomination, the winner would not emerge until the last round, we will not have the ridiculous circumstance we now have in which the winners are known by February, and the national campaign in effect begins eight or nine months before the election, wearying and distracting the country. Also, without the competitive pressure for individual state primaries to start at an earlier and earlier date, as occurred in 2008, the first round could take place, say, in the first week of March, with the fourth and last round in the first week of June. Instead of the nominees being known in February, they would not be known until June. The winners would then have about two months to prepare for their party conventions in mid summer, and the true national campaign would not begin until Labor Day, as it used to be.

A possible drawback of the Delaware plan is that it makes the national conventions even more meaningless than they now are, since the process assures that a candidate will be chosen in the primaries. On further thought, this is not necessarily the case. We can readily imagine a three way race in which, at the end of the primaries, no candidate has gained the delegates needed for nomination. A real contest at the convention is no less unlikely under the Delaware plan than it is at present.

Another point: This entire discussion assumes that popular democracy is the way to pick a party nominee for the presidency. My own preference is that we go back to the smoke-filled rooms, when experienced political actors would decide on the nominee, based on their understanding of who the best man was. Of course, I realize there is no possibility of such a system being adopted. Since we must have a popular primary system, let’s have one that makes sense.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 09, 2008 08:20 PM | Send

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