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Presidential Primary Schedule Change is Cosmetic

By Peter Brown

When you're on a losing streak, it is human nature to see change - any change -- as a good thing. But superficial change that becomes an excuse for ducking a more fundamental and difficult problem can be counter-productive.

Take the Democratic Party, which has been losing presidential elections at an alarming rate over the last 40 years, and is rearranging its presidential primaries schedule as a way of winning the White House.

The party's problem is that the presidential candidates its activists nominate in the spring don't attract enough Democrats who don't vote in the primaries, or sufficient independents and Republican crossovers, in November.

But instead of dealing with the underlying problem - that those who vote in the nomination process are out of touch with the views and values of the larger electorate - the Democrats are rearranging the 2008 primary and caucus schedule.

Party poo-bahs have decided that Iowa and New Hampshire, which have been the first caucus and primary respectively, have too much power. They want to give other states more clout, especially those with larger minority populations.

They have decided that Nevada should hold a caucus between Iowa and New Hampshire. And, that South Carolina's primary should be right after the New Hampshire primary to give others more influence in the selection process.

Now, as a former political reporter who spent God knows how many nights freezing my chops off watching presidential candidates cater to the folks of Iowa and New Hampshire, I have no ax to grind.

Democrats and Republicans in those two states are essentially professional voters who serve a valuable function. But there is no reason to think their counterparts in Nevada and South Carolina, in time, will be any less diligent.

The flaw in the Democratic change - which has no effect on the Republicans who are perfectly happy with the primary schedule since it has produced winners for them - is that they think changing the voting order will change the result.

Maybe yes. Maybe no.

The Democratic problem is not when people vote in the primaries, it is who they pick.

Simply put, Democratic primary votes have been out of step with the views and values of the larger electorate. The data on that issue to so heavy it has choked the donkey.

Now, how you change that situation is a much larger problem than modifying the voting schedule. It entails convincing the larger non-primary electorate to change its politics to more confirm to those of Democratic primary voters, or vice versa.

Tinkering with the primary schedule is like taking an aspirin for cancer and then believing there is no need for chemotherapy.

And the notion that Nevada and South Carolina will help nominate better general election candidates flies in the face of logic.

The Democratic problem is not that they don't get enough minority votes - they get 85 percent plus black votes and a solid majority of Hispanics, although President Bush cut into their margin with the latter in 2004.

The problem is that no Democrat since 1964 has carried a majority of white voters. John Kerry barely broke 40 percent in 2004. Even with a more diverse national population, 77 percent of the 2004 voters were white. That figure will be similar in 2008.

In South Carolina's 2004 Democratic primary, 49 percent of voters were black, which seems unlikely to lead that state to pick a candidate who will be more acceptable to the majority white population in November than was John Kerry.

Nevada Democrats held a caucus in 2004 and the demographics of the party activists who participated are unknown. However, in November of 2004 the percentage of blacks and Hispanics who voted there was slightly below the national average.

But at least Nevada was a swing state in the November election, while South Carolina was a Republican blowout.

There is nothing wrong with the Democrats shaking up the primary schedule, but no one should think that the move will do anything to address the underlying problem.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu

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