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Evaluating Proposals for Reform (updated)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007
(This damned post has been sitting in my "draft" folder for days.....)

This is my next piece on the presidential primary process.

Okey dokey. Here are the basic reform plans:

1) The rotating regional primary plan.
This comes in a couple of different varieties. One divides the country into the four regions (South, Northeast, West, Midwest) and alternates which primary goes first. A more sophisticated version divides the country into subregions - probably New England, the Middle Atlantic, the Southeast, the Middle/New South, Great Lakes, Farmbelt, Southwest, Rockies, and Pacific coast. But you get the idea. This plan would restore some order to the present system, consolidating and rationalizing it somewhat, without making any substantial changes.
My problem with this plan is that it does nothing to change the current system, really. It does end one kind of bias (that of IA and NH), but replaces it with other sorts of bias. "Big" candidates would be advantaged by the larger playing field of the regional primary. But the big beef I have with it is the periodic bias towards candidates from certain regions of the country. For example, if the South had the first primary in 2008, we'd almost certainly have a southern nominee. If the Northeast, a Northeasterner. In the same sense, a certain region's voters would get to choose the nominee, diminishing the influence of the rest. How fair is that?
It turns out that the bill under consideration in the Senate actually leaves IA and NH before any of the regional primaries. Which means this plan would resolve precisely nothing. Boo!

2) The small-state plan
The states are clustered by population size (and dispersed geographically into different regions), voting week by week until the big states vote at the end. This is a lot like the system worked in the 1970's, when candidates gradually built up momentum before the big showdowns in states like California and Ohio.
Probably the best of this set of proposals, it would effectively exclude the big states from having a meaningful say (which is why they started front-loading in the first place), and since small states tend to be rural and white, would still under-represent minorities and people living in urban areas. But it would help outsider candidates have a chance.

3) The competitive state plan
Under this approach, the states would be ordered based on their closeness in the last election (or the last few elections). The idea is that if the purpose of nomination is to select the candidate with the best chance of winning the general election, then the states that are most important in the general should also be most important in the primaries. I have a number of objections to this strategy. First, the primary voters in a swing state might be very different from the general election voters, so it might not work. Second, it would (funnily enough) still privilege IA and NH - two of the closest states in the nation. Third, I think Florida and Ohio have enough influence right now, thank you very much.

4) The national primary
Every state votes on the same day. This plan would mute the influence of any one region by eliminating the sequential character of the primary process, which is what creates it. Which is good. It would also magnify the influence of the press & wealthy contributors and effectively eliminate "outsider" candidates from the process (they couldn't compete on that scale). Which is bad. It also might lead to a brokered convention, which would be fun to watch but would also hurt the party in the general election - brokered conventions are not pretty.

5) Scrap primaries entirely.
Nobody has seriously considered this approach, but it's possible to say that primaries won't pick delegates to convention, turning them into "beauty contests." It would be a return to the days before the McGovern reforms. Now on the one hand this would make for interesting nomination contests. On the other hand, I wonder how we would pick delegates. By caucus? I'm afraid that these would, like Iowa, become just like primaries, meaning you would have solved nothing. The "outsider" candidates would probably be excluded, unless they won a bunch of the beauty contests. I also don't think that anybody would really go for this plan, since it looks anti-democratic.

Of course there are many permutations and possible combinations of each of these plans, but as you can see none of them solves every problem. One of them (the regional primary plan) solves almost nothing, so it should probably be excluded from consideration. Unfortunately it's the one that's gotten the most consideration. Predictable.

Next time - my plan for reform.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:21 AM
  • One thing I find interesting about this whole primary thing is the idea that doing well in an early primary gives a candidate significant subsequent advantage. This implies that people don't vote based on their own opinions of the candidates, but are strongly influenced by who other people have voted for. In other words, there's a strong lemming component to voting patterns.

    I guess it's not really that surprising--people want to vote for the candidate who's most likely to win, and the way to gauge that is to see how successful a candidate has previously been at capturing votes. But if people always throw their support behind the candidate who was successful early, that makes the advantage gained by winning early primaries a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    By Blogger Mad Hatter, at 9:52 PM  
  • That's about the size of it.....

    There is actually something more to it, of course. The "momentum" effect used to be a lot weaker when there were serious ideological divisions within the 2 parties. Now that the D's and R's are pretty homogenous, there's nothing more than personality to distinguish the candidates from each other for most voters (political and policy freaks are different, of course). So unless there's some burning policy difference, voters just tend to vote for the "winner."

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 6:33 AM  
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