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The Primary Mess

Friday, August 31, 2007
We are witnessing the unraveling of the presidential primary system. To catch everybody up, the Iowa Caucuses, followed by the New Hampshire primary, have been the first two nomination contests for decades. Since the present system was established through the McGovern-Frazier reforms back in 1969, these two contests have served to winnow the field down to 2 candidates, who then duked it out through the other stakes to determine the winner. Gradually those other states have moved their primaries earlier in order to maximize their own influence over the nomination process - this is called front-loading. However, their attempts to do so have only magnified the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, allowing candidates with considerable momentum in those 2 states to quickly finish off their opponents. A few other states have played important roles, such as South Carolina for the Republicans, but the basic structure has remained the same: Iowa, New Hampshire, everybody else.

Until now.

The front-loading trend reached its latest absurdity this year when a whole bunch of huge states like California and New York moved their primaries to February 5 to create a new and more spectacular Super Tuesday than the old Southern-dominated variety. The original schedule was going to be Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, and then the mega-states. But that plan has collapsed. Florida moved to January 29, then South Carolina to January 19. Wyoming has jumped ahead of Iowa, and Michigan has moved up as well. Iowa and New Hampshire are now having to consider moving their primaries into 2007 - the symbolic wall beyond which nobody knows what happens.

This anarchy is the product of a collective action problem. Nobody wants a nomination process that starts in 2007, but no state is willing to sacrifice its ability to gain a little bit of an advantage on everybody else. The parties are attempting to impose sanctions on states moving too close to IA and NH by depriving them of delegates, but the states are gambling that they'll get away with it (no nominee wants to piss off a state he'll be campaigning in).

I find this a fascinating problem, and over the next couple of posts I'm going to examine what I think are the pertinent issues: what we want out of nominating system, what's wrong with the current system, what's wrong with the major proposals out there to fix it, and what I think should be done about it.

Hey, it's better than working on my dissertation, right?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:36 PM
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