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Nation First

Thank goodness for the front-loaded primary schedule

You can't blame Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for moving California's primary earlier in the schedule. It's been a long time since the state with the most people had anything close to the most influence over the presidential nominating process. In fact, it's been a long time since California had any meaningful influence at all, except as a source of campaign contributions. Now the state holds its primary on February 5--probably along with Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and New York. This emerging "national primary," as it is being called, has the potential to decide the nomination right then and there.

And that, according to an emerging consensus, is trouble. By ratifying a choice so early, the argument goes, it will compress a nominating process that has already gotten too short and--potentially--produce a hasty, ill-conceived decision. Democrats, in particular, seem worried about this because it was just this sort of haste that produced the party's last presidential candidate--John Kerry. In 2004, powered by his underlying (and underappreciated) organizational strength--not to mention that scream by Howard Dean--he became virtually unstoppable after back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. The support of party insiders and fundraisers, who were eager to avoid a bloody nomination fight, consolidated around him. The resulting aura of "inevitability" protected him from second-guessing, even as a challenger (John Edwards) began to emerge as potentially more appealing.

Maybe a similar scenario will play out again. As pollster Mark Mellman recently noted in an article for The Hill, in the last few contests voters have rallied behind the Iowa and New Hampshire winners, even when the margins in those contests have been small. Putting so many big states in line right behind them might simply magnify the effect: Now there would be even less opportunity for buyer's remorse, and 2004 might repeat itself. Among other things, such a quick nomination decision would seem to favor safe, boring candidates over dynamic, interesting ones--since the latter are more likely to make the kinds of gaffes that temporarily destroy momentum and require recovery time.

Still, given the particular dynamics of this race--or, more precisely, the particular candidates now running--maybe this wouldn't be so awful. One reason that the 2004 result looks less appealing in retrospect--aside from the obvious fact that it produced a general-election loser--is that the field of candidates included politicians who were relatively unknown and untested on the national stage. Democrats in other states were, in effect, taking it on faith that the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire knew what they were doing. (Substantively speaking, this isn't such a terrible gambit; the voters there really do take their job of scrutinizing the candidates seriously, in a way that only a small-state contest would allow; on the other hand, it also magnifies the peculiar political preferences of those two states--which is one good reason Nevada, with a much different perspective, is in the early mix now.)

But this time around, it seems far less likely voters around the country would be armed with so little information. The leading candidates--Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama--are all candidates of national stature. And, while Obama is new to national politics, his celebrity guarantees that most Democratic voters will be pretty familiar with him (and, hopefully, his ideas) by the time 2008 actually begins. If the February 5 contests really do produce a winner, they will likely capture a preference based on reasonably well-considered judgments--at least compared with what happened last time.

That's especially true given the early start this campaign is getting. The candidates have already had one debate. Tomorrow, they'll have another one in Las Vegas. (It's about health care.) To be sure, not a lot of people are paying attention just yet. And many people won't tune in until next year, when the voting actually begins. But, by the time February 5 rolls around, it's safe to assume the public will have gotten to know the candidates--and their ideas--pretty well.

You could even go back to 2004--the year when supposedly everything went wrong--and wonder whether the nominating process was so broken after all. The months preceding Iowa and New Hampshire were their own mini-campaign of sorts, with candidates stumbling--and then having to prove themselves all over again. Kerry was at rock bottom right before the primaries; people openly speculated that he should just get out. But he won anyway--and did so, arguably, because he convinced voters he was the best candidate. That judgment may have been wrong; as I've argued previously, Democratic voters may have erred by choosing a candidate whom they deemed "electable" rather than one they actually liked. But that could have happened just as easily in a more protracted primary process.

The more interesting scenario to contemplate is the one getting no attention: What if all the early nominating contests prolong the race, rather than settle it? To win the Democratic nomination, you need a simple majority of its roughly 4,300 voting delegates--that is, you need the support of around 2,150. But that's easier said than done, because not all delegates are actually awarded during the caucuses and primaries. Almost one fifth of them are superdelegates--party insiders and leaders who are free to support whomever they choose. That reduces the number of delegates actually at stake during the caucuses and primaries. And, if you do the math, you'll see that a successful candidate must win about 60 percent of those in order to lock up the nomination without superdelegates.

What makes this all particularly interesting is that the primaries don't award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis. Many are assigned by congressional district, with delegates awarded proportionally--so most states will award delegates to more than one candidate. If the result of the early primaries is to divide votes in roughly equal before a consensus emerges, getting to that magic 2,150 threshold could be difficult--because, by the time a frontrunner emerges, there wouldn't be enough delegates still at stake to hit that total.

This scenario may sound far-fetched (and it's unlikely), but it's not impossible. In 1980, Ted Kennedy won enough delegates that Carter couldn't lock up a majority until the very last week; even afterward, the delegate count was so close that Kennedy harbored vaguely realistic hopes of prying away committed Carter delegates on the convention floor and wresting away the nomination. Walter Mondale had similar struggles in 1984. Gary Hart waged a rag-tag candidacy until the very end, winning some large late contests--like Ohio and the finale in California--thereby forcing Mondale to secure pledges from superdelegates to guarantee a majority. Even Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton only secured majorities on the very last weeks of their respective primaries, though their nominations were hardly in doubt by that point.

In a larger field of candidates, each with an independent financial base, a front-loaded contest could conceivably push the nomination decision all the way to the convention itself--producing a brokered convention, just like in the old days. Candidates would start wooing superdelegates and the supporters of other, more marginal candidates. (Under convention rules, delegates selected in primaries are bound to vote for their candidate on the first ballot; after that, they can choose anybody they want.) It'd be a full-employment act for campaign consultants and operatives, not to mention pundits.

It seems less probable in a race likely to be dominated by two candidates. Instead, the more likely outcome of a split decision on February 5 would be to increase the importance of later contests--places like Oregon and West Virginia. Talk about unintended consequences! As Salon's Walter Shapiro, a veteran campaign observer, notes, "It would be splendid irony if the White House dreamers devoted April (a month without a single scheduled delegate contest) and May to shuttling from Portland to Charleston to Indianapolis, as those places proved that voters who laugh last laugh best."

In that scenario, though, might not be the end of the world. It's conventional wisdom that protracted primary battles damage candidates and drain election coffers. That's a big part of the reason why Democrats have been trying to front-load the nomination process for two straight cycles. But the longer a race goes on, the longer it stays in the news. If anything, it's entirely possible that the party with the longer nomination fight will benefit, since its candidates will get more sustained attention.

Truth be told, it's hard to know whether moving primaries early makes an early decision more likely or less. So, in thinking about these recent changes, perhaps it's best to concentrate on what we do know (or think) will happen: Most likely, it will magnify the power of large, important states long shut out of the nominating process. It's probably not the best way to accomplish this: Some kind of rotating schedule of states, with contests more evenly spaced over time, would make more sense. But this isn't tragic, either. There are plenty of good things to worry about this election season. The primary schedule doesn't need to be one of them.