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By Jay Cost

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Viva Iowa! Viva New Hampshire!

Yesterday's column got me thinking about the new primary regime.

The schedule is definitely different than years past. It is much more intense. The calendar itself is still in flux, but this is what I have been able to piece together.

January 14, 2008: Iowa

January 19, 2008: Nevada

January 22, 2008: New Hampshire, Wyoming (GOP only)

January 29, 2008: Florida, South Carolina (Democrats only)

February 2, 2008: South Carolina (GOP only)

February 3, 2008: Maine (GOP Only)

February 5, 2008: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho (Democrats only), Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico (Democrats only), New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia (Republicans only)

Note: Michigan might be moving its primary forward on both the Democrat and Republican sides.

Many people think that there is a collective irrationality in this schedule. Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz summed up the situation as follows.

In the absence of a rational primary process, we are seeing an ad-hoc national primary take shape...Connecticut didn't start this tidal wave but I cannot stand by and allow our voters to become irrelevant. Ultimately, members of both political parties must come together and enact real reform.
What she thinks we have is a collective action dilemma. It is in the interests of all states to develop a binding, rational nominating scheme. However, it is in no state's interests to choose a primary date that is consistent with collective rationality absent an agreement that forces all other states to do likewise. Each state assesses that the others will take advantage of it if it makes the responsible choice; so, each chooses the collectively irrational date. The outcome is thus inefficient for all.

Is it, though? The prevailing view is that it definitely is. There is something wrong with this schedule. Maybe there is, but I think this schedule has a good bit of utility.

Americans are always tinkering with their democratic inputs. Its one of our most cherished pastimes. Yale's Stephen Skowronek has argued that - before America had a modern government - it had a modern democracy. This is most certainly true. Americans have been thinking about, and improving upon ways to vote since the election of 1800. Of the seventeen amendments we have passed on top of the Bill of Rights, nine of them concern voting [second place in the list of amendment subjects is, of course, beer]. Unsurprisingly, we have tinkered with our presidential nominating process several times. Indeed, today's presidential primary process is the product of a slow evolution that quickened after the debacle that was the 1968 Democratic Convention. For years, reformers decried the plutocratic rule of party bosses who could select the presidential candidates that they preferred. After 1968, Democrats instituted major reforms in the nominating process. Republicans soon followed - and we wound up with the system that we have.

Perhaps because only a few of us lived in a time when presidential nominees were chosen for the people instead of by the people, lots of us now object to this new system. And, we're inclined to tinker again. We replaced the plutocracy of the party bosses with a weird geographical aristocracy - in which a few, unrepresentative states make the choice for all of us.

And so, reformers are up-and-about once again. Thirty years ago, they reformed the manner in which presidential nominees are selected. Now, they want to change the schedule by which they are selected. FairVote summarizes the major reform plans:

Delaware Plan: Under the Delaware Plan, the states would be put into four groups according to population. The smallest 12 states, plus federal territories, would vote first, followed by the next smallest 13 states, then the 13 medium-sized states, and finally the 12 largest states. These four consolidated primaries would occur on the first Tuesday of each month, beginning in March and ending in June.

Regional Primary System: The National Association of Secretaries of State has endorsed the idea of regional primaries, with a series of regional primaries separated by a month and with the order of regions changing in every election cycle.

I'll be honest. I don't prefer either of these plans to the seemingly inane schedule that we have this cycle. I think they would make our nominating system less open.

This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, the more people vote - the more open it is, right? Not necessarily! The more people who are allowed to vote at once, the more pressure there will be on candidates to use television advertisements, therefore to acquire money, and therefore to court big money donors. Just because we give to the public the right to select who shall be the nominee does not mean that we have avoided the plutocratic exercise of power. As I have indicated several times on this blog - the exercise of power can be subtle. The more pressure you place on candidates to acquire big money, the more power you give political elites to set the national agenda. In other words - political elites will effectively narrow the field of choices for all of us in these schemes by supporting, or refusing to support, candidates.

This is why placing Iowa and New Hampshire early in the cycle has a real benefit. This is an opportunity for candidates to build grassroots support via retail politicking. From this activity, they can post some wins and then score some big donors. In this situation you give to Iowa and New Hampshire some of the power to set the agenda. They are empowered to review a whole host of candidates, and decide which are, and which are not, worthy of the broader public's consideration. Of course, the media and the political elites play this role in the current system, too. But, in these alternative schemes, Iowa and New Hampshire would lose what power they have, and essentially all agenda-setting power would accrue to political elites in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles.

The problem in the last few cycles has been not only that Iowa and New Hampshire set the agenda for the rest of the public - they also effectively made the choice for all. This happened in 2004 and 2000 with the Democrats. I think this year's schedule might ameliorate much of this problem [which, recall from yesterday, is overrated - Iowa and New Hampshire have only ever effectively chosen the nominees when they act in tandem]. Iowa and New Hampshire come early, but they are almost immediately followed by a majority of the nation. This separation between the early states and Super Tuesday retains Iowa and New Hampshire's agenda-setting power. They can flag candidates as worthy or unworthy of our attention. Meanwhile, the smallness of the separation means that the race will not end before Super Tuesday happens. With just two weeks between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday - it is unlikely that the competition will fall off because of losses in the Buckeye and Granite States. The public will be able to use the early states as an agenda-setting cue, but will still be able to make a real choice.

Well, you might respond, is it not obvious that this is not going to happen this cycle? Is it not obvious that the political elites are exercising an inordinate share of power this year? Look at all of this "eye-popping cash"! Yes, there is such an influence in this cycle. I would certainly agree. But - as I argued yesterday - I do not think this is caused by the current primary system. Without such celebrity candidates, I think the usual manner of doing business in Iowa and New Hampshire, namely retail politicking, would still apply. What we are interested in is whether a given primary schedule will increase the power of political elites to set the agenda. I think both of these alternatives would increase their capacity to do that. I think that is a bad thing.

There is another idea being touted that some think might diminish the power of the elites. This is again from FairVote:

California Plan: The [California] Plan...features a schedule consisting of 10 two-week intervals, during which randomly selected states may hold their primaries or caucuses, with a gradual increase in the total population of states and territories holding primaries/caucuses. This 20-week schedule is weighted based on each state's number of congressional districts. American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, which also send delegates to both national conventions, are each counted as one district in this system.

In the first interval, a randomly determined combination of states with a combined total of eight congressional districts would hold their primaries, caucuses, or conventions. In the second period--two weeks later--the eligibility number would increase to 16. Every two weeks, the combined size of the contests would grow by eight congressional districts, until a combination of states totaling 80 congressional seats (8 x 10)--nearly one-fifth of the total--would be up for grabs in the tenth and last interval at the end of June. What ordinarily would be the 7th primary date would be switched with the 4th primary date, to give all the big states a chance at having an earlier primary.

This type of schedule could enable candidates to win votes via retail politicking. I think that is precisely its point. However, if the selection of states is random, it is not hard to envision a scenario in which you need lots of money and time simply to fly the jet (Round 1: Delaware, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico). Thus, this would offer no guarantee of protection for retail politicking. Also, it is naïve to think that retail politicking can happen any where at any time. It takes strong grassroots political institutions - strong local parties, strong civic groups, etc. It also takes a public that is willing to dedicate the time and effort to evaluating these candidates in formats that are more personal than the mass media. In my dissertation, I call this the political economy of the electoral campaign. It varies from locale to locale. To think that we can pick up New Hampshire's method of politics and place it in Mississippi - without creating equally strong political institutions and a culture attuned to retail politics - is not very realistic. What is more, the variable nature of this system will make it so that only rarely will publics be able to engage in retail politics, and therefore no place will be able to retain the political and social institutions necessary for such politics.

Also, I find it hard to imagine a contest lasting past four of these ten rounds. Thus, never more than 24% of the public will essentially decide the nominees. The blindness of the scheme offers justice to all states - but justice is not the same as efficiency. One of the criticisms of the current scheme is that only a small segment of the public ever gets a say. This is inefficient, given that the President is a leader of all of us. This system fails to address this inefficiency.

It seems to me that if our goals are to diminish the power of political elites to determine who our prospective nominees are, and to open the primary system to as many as possible - a good case can be made for this year's nominating scheme. You have the "retail" states up front - Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina - where you have an opportunity to catch fire, even if the elites do not prefer your candidacy. In other words - you have two paths to get yourself on the greater public's list of viable candidates. On the one hand, you can get elite endorsements, donations, etc. so that you are sufficiently high-profile and well-heeled to compete on National Primary Day. Or you can convince the good folks in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina that you are worthy of their estimation - and they can put you on the national agenda. And then, almost immediately, you have what amounts to a national primary where almost everybody gets a say.

It might be hard to imagine this happening, given this cycle's events. But, as I mentioned earlier in this piece, and as I argued yesterday, the seeming domination of the elites in this cycle and the compressed schedule are not causally related. Envision this schedule minus these celebrity candidates - think of candidates in years like 1976, 1988, 1992, 2004 in this schedule - and I think you will see what I mean.

Remember that simply to give everybody a vote does not necessarily mean that you have created an open system. In a field as large as most presidential fields - somebody is going to have to pare down the number of alternatives to a viable few. Who shall accomplish that task? Right now, Iowa and New Hampshire do much of that work for us. Political elites also do much of the work. The alternatives mentioned above would, I think, place too much of this task in the hands of political elites - large swaths of primaries would require television, and therefore money, and therefore the blessing of the elites. They would thus make for a less open system - for the power to set the agenda is just as important as the power to decide on an agenda item.

Unfortunately, the public as a whole lacks the capacity to set the agenda. As E.E. Schattschneider once noted, the public has a vocabulary that is limited to two words - yes and no - and it can only speak when spoken to. So, if we want to keep a portion of the larger public involved in the process of determining who are viable candidates - and not cede this agenda-setting power entirely to political elites - we must delegate it to a few smaller, non-elite entities. Hence, we have the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. We need to protect their agenda-setting power, but make sure that the final choice is up to the rest of the nation.

I think this year's system might actually do that. This not to say that I would not tinker with it a little. It probably would be inefficient to have all states vote on the first Tuesday in February - so it might be prudent to rotate them in and out. And, anyway, you'd want a not insignificant set of states behind Super Tuesday to break ties. I'd also maybe move it back a few weeks, too. Even then, I would not argue that such a system would be maximally efficient. Iowa and New Hampshire require private payment - namely ethanol and the Northeastern Dairy Compact - for the public service they render. But I think these sorts of inefficiencies would be inevitable whatever you do. Overall, I think this cycle's schedule is not terribly bad. I prefer it to any of the three alternatives being bandied about these days.

-Jay Cost