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Rethinking Primary Assumptions

By Peter Brown

In addition to perhaps deciding the Democratic presidential nomination, Pennsylvania may put the lie to the notion that only small states like New Hampshire and Iowa can get to know White House candidates up close and personal.

And that might be worth considering when, as seems inevitable, the powers-that-be after this election re-examine how the Democrats and Republicans pick their nominees with an eye toward overhauling the system.

With five weeks until Pennsylvania voters cast Democratic primary ballots, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and their minions are descending on the Keystone State just as they do in the months before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.

There has been a general agreement that a national presidential primary with all states voting at one time is a flawed approach because it would greatly favor well-known, better funded candidates with little chance for others to emerge.

The consensus has been that allowing a couple of states to go first is a good idea because it gives lesser-known candidates a chance they would not have otherwise.

New Hampshire and Iowa have long argued that because smaller states are best suited for such duty they should get the job, even though neither is anything close to a demographic duplicate of the nation as a whole.

It used to be that presidential candidates campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire living rooms and by meeting voters, if not one-on-one, in small groups that allowed for serious examination of the potential presidents.

Although some of that remains, those times are largely gone.

This cycle, the presidential candidates spent more than $40 million in Iowa on television ads alone - clearly a boost for the state's economy, but by no means the kind of retail campaigning that made Iowa's judgment important and unique.

It's not Iowa's fault. It's just a reflection of the way people run for president these days, the huge amount of money spent and the intense media interest.

But if the kind of retail campaigning that has occurred in Iowa and New Hampshire until now is disappearing, is there any reason why those states should get preferential treatment in the future?

That's why the next five weeks in Pennsylvania will be instructive.

The Keystone State, because of the closeness of the Obama-Clinton race and the reality that there are no other primaries or caucuses until its April 22 primary, will get the kind of focus from the candidates that normally only occurs in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Yes, a state like Pennsylvania has two major media markets (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) where TV ads are very expensive, which has long been the argument against letting a big state go first in the delegate-selection process.

But the huge amount spent on Iowa negates that argument and raises the question of why the states that get the privileged position in the pecking order have to be physically smaller, less populous and rural.

As Obama and Clinton campaign with the same intensity they had when courting Iowa and New Hampshire voters, hopefully Pennsylvania voters there will give them the same kind of intense grilling that has benefited those of us who don't have that opportunity.

Pennsylvania's news media certainly are experiencing the same royal treatment from the candidates as their New Hampshire brethren often receive.

One Harrisburg radio news reporter said he had been asked for his cell number by the Clinton campaign so that if the candidate or former President Bill Clinton wanted to chat, they could give him a call.

The continuing controversy over Florida and Michigan being penalized because they bucked national party dictates on scheduling is likely to force a thorough reconsideration of the entire presidential nominating process in 2012.

That being the case, the Pennsylvania experience during the coming weeks could go a long way toward challenging the assumption that the presidential nominating process has to begin in small states.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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