News from the Votemaster
Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia has compiled a list of likely primary and caucus dates in 2008 and concluded we are heading for a national disaster. Currently, Iowa goes first with its famous caucuses on Jan. 14, followed by caucuses in Nevada 5 days later. Then comes the New Hampshire primary followed quickly by the South Carolina primaries (with Republicans and Democrats on different days).
The rest is murky. Many states are trying to move their caucuses and primaries very early to get a piece of the action. As many as 17 states may hold their events on Feb 5, at which time half the delegates will have been chosen, The old system, of primaries and caucuses spread over 4 or 5 months was a leisurely process and gave the voters time to examine the candidates carefully. That scenario won't happen in 2008.
There are two factors playing a role here. On one hand, some people feel that giving so much power to Iowa and New Hampshire, two small, white, homogeneous, rural states is a bad idea. This is why the Democrats put Nevada and South Carolina early in the lineup. Nevada is a surprisingly urban state, with most people living in Las Vegas, Reno, or Carson City, with the rest of the state being home to rabbits and coyotes. Nevada also has a large Latino population. Nevada also gives the West an early voice in the process. South Carolina has a large African American population and gives the South a major role. While the Republicans have not been so aggressive in moving up their elections, they have also been going in that direction.
On the other hand, state legislators in states whose primary or caucus was in the late spring, when the nominee was already known, felt left out, so many of them began drafting laws to move up the date so the candidates would show up with their entourages and trailing pack of reporters. It brings attention to the state as well as money.
The result of these factors is complete chaos. Nobody knows what the schedule is yet, but it appears we are going to have a haphazard national primary on Feb. 5. If the nominees are known by Feb. 6, we are going to have a partisan campaign almost a year long. The voters will be completely turned off by November.
The conventional wisdom is that this new arrangement will benefit the candidates with the biggest bank accounts. After all, if you have to fight simultaneously in California, Michigan, New Jersey and a dozen other states Feb. 5, that week's TV time alone will probably run in the $20-50 million range. Small fry are not invited. According to this theory, the beneficiaries are likely to be Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain, they of the big wallets.
But politics is a funny thing. I think it might work differently. Whoever wins the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 14 will get millions of dollars worth of free publicity until the Nevada caucuses. If the same person wins Nevada, the snowball will be rolling and he or she might carry New Hampshire based on all the publicity. South Carolina on Jan. 29th could seal the deal, leading to a landslide on Feb, 5.
On the Democratic side, the person most likely to profit from this (terrible) arrangement is John Edwards. While he is down in the national polls, they don't mean anything. Edwards has been virtually living in Iowa for months. His goal is to shake every hand, paw, and hoof in the state before caucus day. Iowans like to meet the candidates. This is not a state you can win by running a lot of glossy TV ads. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have to make the decision to put the ground time in. So far they haven't. If Edwards wins, he will get mountains of free publicity, which may give him the edge in Nevada, which is a heavily unionized state, and he is popular with unions. If he pulls off a second win, he goes into New Hampshire as the favorite. A first or second place finish there will position him well for his native South Carolina, which he won in 2004. At that point he may have enough momentum to sweep the Feb 5. primaries and caucuses, no matter how much money Clinton spends on TV in those expensive markets. It could happen.
The Republican side is much murkier. There is no clear leader in any of the early states and the polls fluctuate quite a bit. Still, early wins in Iowa and Nevada by a lesser known candidate, like Sam Brownback, could throw a monkey wrench in the plans of the big guys.
Also important is how fast the mud begins to fly. All the bad things about Hillary are so well known that no one will bother to bring them up again. Edwards has already been through the mill and Obama probably doesn't have a lot of dirt in his background--he hasn't been in the corridors of power long enough. The worst that is likely to happen is tiffs over who David Geffen loves the most (in a symbolic sense--Geffen is openly gay).
With the Republicans, the situation is very different. McCain has been out there a long time, so his negatives are pretty well known--he supports the war, is quite old, and has had cancer several times. Probably not much new dirt on him will come out. Giuliani and Romney are newcomers to the national scene though. Rudy is coasting on a vague concept of "leadership." Very few people know about his marriage to his second cousin, Regina Peruggi, its annullment 14 years later, his various public affairs, his marriage to (and later divorce from) actress Donna Hanover, and then his recent marriage to a divorced nurse, Judith Nathan. Giuliani's official Website does not mention his first two marriages or the fact that he has two children with Donna Hanover. That will all come up during 2007. Mark my words. Polls have repeatedly shown that almost no one outside New York knows that he has been very pro-choice, pro-gay, and pro-gun-control for years. If that comes out and sinks him in Iowa, where the Republicans tend to be rock-ribbed conservatives, he is going to be in big trouble. Romney's problem is the slow leak of how Democratic he has been in the past, contributing to Democratic candidates, holding fund raisers for Democrats, and voting for Democrats. Ronald Reagan started as a Democrat, but his conversion took place decades before he ran for President. Romney's is about two years old. So far, only political junkies know about this stuff, but it will come out during the campaign. Count on it. If any or all of the leading contenders stumble in the first few states, they won't have enough time to recover, as they could in the past.
One last note about the front loading is in order. If all the major candidates do roughly equally well in the early states and end up splitting the vote on Feb. 5, we could have a situation where one or both parties has no front runner on Feb. 6, leaving the decision to those states that didn't hop on the bandwagon and move up their elections. Wouldn't it be ironic that the winners were determined by Kentucky, Oregon, and Washington at the end of May? It is a wide open race. Anything can happen. Expect the unexpected.
Maybe the impending disaster will knock some sense into the parties and we will have a more rational schedule in 2012, such as a few small states first (Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina aren't bad choices), followed by one regional primary per month, with the order rotating from election to election.
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-- The Votemaster