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Behind The Times

Why our system for nominating presidential candidates needs to go.
The New York Times

The nominating system that has existed in some form or another since an unknown Jimmy Carter parlayed a victory in the Iowa caucuses into the Democratic nomination has collapsed. No longer is there an orderly process of primaries that stretches from the living rooms of Iowa in February to the tarmacs of New Jersey and California in June. Tired of being overlooked in the nominating process, states have stampeded to the front of the line, creating a de facto national primary on February 5, the first day on which almost all states can hold a nominating contest. Add in early voting and that means that anywhere between one-third to one-half of votes in delegate-rich states like California, Texas, and Florida could be cast days before Iowa holds its caucuses on January 14. In such a world, as Henry pointed out, it makes little sense to focus on one state that demands an intensive amount of time and resources when there is a national primary already underway--especially when you are a nationally known candidate.

But it's not just the order to the nominating calendar that has been destroyed; it's the entire delegate-based nominating system that has finally collapsed as well. Let's admit the obvious: The whole system of delegate conventions to nominate a presidential standard-bearer is an anachronistic farce. Conventions are nothing more than extended parties and political rallies--entertaining for political hacks like myself and useful to jump-start the general election. They have a nostalgic pull on the political class (and on political scientists who pine for a brokered convention), but conventions have almost no real say in who the nominee will be; they merely rubber-stamp a decision made months earlier.

That's why Florida decided to schedule its primary on January 29, even though it meant censure by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and a loss of delegates at next summer's nominating convention. Florida realized that what matters is not the number of delegates at a meaningless convention, but the candidate and press attention early in the process--and the earlier the better. Sanctions be damned, said the Sunshine State, and, in saying so, it exposed the conceit holding the entire nominating system together. Ironically, once again, Florida exposed a fundamental flaw in how we choose presidents.

Instead of trying to broker a deal with Florida or trying to downgrade the Florida primary to a beauty contest in which no real delegates are chosen, Democrats need to confront the reality that the system has totally collapsed and build a nominating process that reflects the realities of politics today.

After all, the system is not sacrosanct. In fact, it's younger than most voters. Its roots lie in the effort to close the smoke-filled rooms and loosen the holds that party bosses had on the nominating process up until the middle part of the last century. This push was codified in the McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms of 1972 that put primaries and caucuses at the center of the delegate selection process. Since then, successive commissions have tinkered with the nominating system--creating "superdelegates," for instance, in the 1980s and adding Nevada and South Carolina to the ranks of first-in-the-nation primaries and caucuses just last year. But at some point, you have to stop plugging leaks and start from scratch.

To do that, the party should eliminate the entire delegate-selection system. The party nomination should be given to whichever candidate wins a plurality of votes in the primaries. Voter eligibility still would be set by states, and spots on the calendar can be allocated via rotating regional primaries as proposed by the National Association of Secretaries of State and endorsed by the Carter-Baker Commission on election reform; or on four primary dates with each date featuring larger and larger states (the "Delaware Plan"); or in a staggered but more random fashion as outlined in the "American Plan" supported by the non-profit Fair Vote. All of these schemes have merits--the largest of which is that they would elongate the nominating season and thus the vetting of the candidates by voters. But, my reform idea is that voters should be voting directly for a nominee, not for a delegate to a nominating convention.

Once summer rolled around, there would be a party meeting. This convention would merely gather people with a similar interest (Democratic politics), just as optometrists or Shriners gather for their own meetings. Democratic activists and elected officials could schmooze and network; speeches could still be given by the presidential nominee and party leaders present and future. All that would be missing would be parliamentary procedures that no one really understands anyway and four words: "I accept your nomination."

This reengineering of the nominating system would not necessarily mean a diminution of the summer gathering. In fact, by doing away with the charade that the conventions are places where news can take place, it actually could increase interest in the conventions. After all, the press complains each cycle that it has to spend precious time and resources covering a non-event--a carefully orchestrated political pantomime. In 1996, Ted Koppel famously pulled his crew from the Republican convention after just two days, fed up with the entire exercise--and networks have cut back on coverage each year.

A nominating-less convention, for one, could be at least half the length of the current four-day affair. The opening night could highlight the vice presidential nominee, and the second night could highlight the presidential one. The fact that they would be addressing the largest gathering of their party's members would merit significant attention from the press. One could imagine broadcast networks, relieved from having to dedicate four nights of prime time to each convention, covering an hour each of the two nights to hear the party nominees address the nation. All other speeches inevitably would be covered by cable networks in between the car chases, celebrity trials, and runaway brides.

There are some flaws in this approach. What happens if a nominee dies or drops out before the general election? Currently, the DNC would meet to fill the slot as it did in 1972 when Thomas Eagleton dropped off the ticket as George McGovern's running-mate. Down the road, Internet voting may make holding another special primary feasible. In the meantime, there are any number of fallbacks--from giving the nomination to the runner-up to having the congressional delegations and governors select a new nominee.

Whatever the system, it will be a marked improvement of the current one--and the DNC should join with its Republican counterpart and with secretaries of state around the nation to start another round of reform after the 2008 election. For now, however, the candidates will have to deal with the nominating process we have--and Hillary Clinton will continue to spend weekends in Iowa.

Kenneth Baer is the co-editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

By Kenneth Baer