It's official. New York has moved its primary up to February 5 (the unofficial 'start date' of the open primary season, after Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina have held their caucuses and/or primaries.)
What this does is bring us closer to a 'national primary.' New York may be one of up to twenty-four states voting on that day, including the four largest (California, Texas, New York and Florida.) This means that more than half of the voters in the country will likely be voting on February 5. The day even already has a nickname. the old fashioned 'Super Tuesday' (when a half dozen or more states might vote together) wasn't good enough for this one, so it is being tagged, 'Super-Duper Tuesday') No apologies made to former Miami Dolphin's receiver Mark 'Super' Duper either.
A national primary day is not necessarily a bad idea, in that it gives voters from all different parts of the country an opportunity to be heard. On the other hand, that didn't work very well in 2004, in which Iowa and New Hampshire in essence picked John Kerry for the rest of us and with most states voting by March 2, no one else had much of a chance to stop his momentum (we can see how well that worked.) Of course it meant that he had from March to November to run against George Bush, but then that worked both ways-- while Kerry was skiiing in Idaho after wrapping up the nomination in March, the GOP was spending millions of dollars 'defining' him, as well as organizing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (which they officially rolled out just after the Democratic convention) so that by election day in November, 46% of the voters in the country absolutely refused to vote for John Kerry-- a very thin margin to work with, and one which he failed to overcome.
Traditionally, Iowa and New Hampshire have begun the process and picked candidates like a Jimmy Carter or a Ronald Reagan or a Gary Hart or a Paul Tsongas-- candidates that people may be surprised by, but who then undergo a thorough vetting by both the media and by the voters in the larger states, over a period of weeks or months so that if they are found wanting then there is time for a better candidate to emerge. This system worked well for many years (though the argument that New Hampshire and Iowa are two of the three 'purple states' in the middle-- states which switched parties between the 2000 and 2004 general elections is bogus; Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans are often very conservative and Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats are often very liberal-- if the states are 'purple' it is only because the conservatives and liberals exist in approximately equal numbers.)
A true national primary would be having everyone vote on the same day.
But what we have now is a situation that seems the worst of both worlds. Iowa and New Hampshire can get the momentum rolling for a candidate and it snowballs so fast with the front loaded primaries that it is over before anyone can really examine the candidate. That certainly happened in 2004.
So now we see that this kind of mistake could be repeated, but even worse, with the nominee selected a month earlier-- and nearly seven months before the convention and nine before the election. The real failure is one of leadership, on both sides. There are many reasons states move their primaries up. It may be that they are just sick of not having a voice. It may be that with the increasing exposure and ad dollars that Presidential campaigns bring in these days they want the shot for their economy. It could be that they want to help local favorites (certainly one motivation for the early New York primary is to help local favorites Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans.) Or this year especially, it might be just part of the 'stampede mentality'-- everyone else is doing it, so why not us?
I'd like to suggest a couple of possible scenarios that could bring the problems here into perspective. I would rate each at about a 5-10% probability (meaning that they probably won't happen, but certainly they are possible, and if this happens every four years then sooner or later one of them will).
Scenario #1: First, take it on the Democratic side: Obama wins Iowa, Clinton recovers and wins New Hampshire and Edwards takes South Carolina. In Nevada the frontrunners all disappoint while Richardson (who has now clearly moved to the front of the 'second tier'-- exactly where John Edwards was last time around) does surprisingly well. On 'Super-Duper Tuesday,' Feb. 5, the mixed verdict produces no clear winner at the polls== but all the candidates do well enough to make it clear that no one will have a majority heading into a brokered convention. The months between that day and the convention is filled with the candidates wasting time and money attacking each other in an increasingly acerbic battle to pick up the few remaining delegates and go into the convention in as strong a position as possible-- and no one still enters with a sure nomination. This could drag on for months, and end with a nasty convention fight. The one saving grace for the Democrats is that if there is a brokered convention and none of the candidates can gin up a majority, there is a consensus candidate they could draft from the floor who is respected across pretty much all sectors of the party-- namely Al Gore-- who could probably be nominated and run a strong campaign in the fall.
Same scenario GOP side: Suppose that Giuliani puts together a win in Iowa, but former Massachusetts neighbor Mitt Romney wins New Hampshire. Veteran John McCain (who this time around has the support of Pat Robertson) wins in veteran-heavy South Carolina, but Georgia neighbor Newt Gingrich does very well there. Super-Duper Tuesday again produces a mixed verdict, with everyone doing well enough to effectively deny the nomination to anyone else. The Republicans fare worse in such a scenario since if they don't have a nominee in place by the convention they don't have an Al Gore as a backup-- a single unifying candidate that likely they could get a majority of the delegates to agree on if none of the announced candidates can garner a majority.
Of course in any case such a scenario would really harm either party if it happened to them but the other party had a nominee by February. That nominee could then collect lots of cash to use in the general, unify his (or her) party and let the other side squabble amongst themselves, all at the relatively cheap price of absorbing an occasional potshot from the other side when they aren't too busy wasting their resources on each other.
Scenario #2: A party nominates a candidate over a couple of weeks from late January to February 5. The candidate has maybe been cruising in the shadow of the frontrunners (as was the case with John Kerry and John Edwards in 2004) who self-destruct in a negative ad war (exactly what happened in Iowa to Howard Dean, who had been the front runner, and Dick Gephardt who was just behind Dean in Iowa). The relatively unknown candidate wins Iowa, rides the momentum (and the negative momentum of the former front runners) to a win in New Hampshire and sweeps Super-Duper Tuesday. That candidate has the nomination all sewed up by early February. Then it happens. The media, which had been focusing on the front runners, maybe with an assist from the hawks on the other side of the political spectrum, finds a scandal. Not just any scandal. A 'the candidate is a child molester,' or a 'the candidate authorized the terrorizing of a person who knew something embarrassing about the candidate to keep them quiet,' or a 'the candidate while in the Senate leaked classified information to Iranian agents' level of scandal. While I am in no way suggesting that I have any reason to believe any of these charges about any candidates currently running in either party, I am suggesting it as a hypothetical-- the type of scandal that makes the candidate a pariah. Or, perhaps no scandal at all but comments that reveal the candidate to be unstable, bigoted or otherwise unsuited to be President. Unelectable, and with the BEST scenario possible being a brokered convention, if party leaders can convince the candidate to quit and release his or her delegates. The worst part about this is that it would drag on for nine months (especially if the candidate refuses to step aside), and not only cost the party the Presidency but likely seriously damage members of the candidate's party all up and down the ballot as they couldn't flee the top of their ticket fast enough.
This scenario could be avoided if the media and others began digging when a candidate jumped up and won a primary, but now we've arranged it so that they won't have time to do their job until the die has been cast.
We are playing with fire here. If one of these things does not happen next year, then it will in 2012, 2016 or some other election year. But sooner or later one party will get burned by such a scenario.
One other beef I have with this primary schedule. Bad enough to have it essentially over in a day, but if so then why a day in February? The Iowa and New Hampshire verdicts in January made sense when the Presidential primary season went on until June, but if we insist on compacting this so much, then why not at least move it closer to the conventions? February until September is much too long a time. I'd recommend that if there is to be a national primary, that it be no earlier than June.