- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2011


For the second straight presidential election cycle, Florida has moved up its primary to late January, leapfrogging four early primary states and likely causing them to reschedule their contests to early January 2012 or even December 2011 to preserve their influential status. Michigan and Arizona also have moved up their contests, threatening to dilute the early states’ impact.

The dilemma is who should be first - smaller states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which claim that personal voter interaction is essential for vetting potential presidents, or larger states such as Florida and Michigan, which have long argued against the disproportional clout wielded by a handful of voters in the perennial early states?

If the goal is to have a more democratic electoral system, preserving the traditional four early primaries is the most logical answer. Money and name recognition are keys to winning in more populated states such as Florida and Michigan, and lesser-known, lesser-funded candidates would never stand a chance. Unlike the way big states encourage mass-market advertising, less populated states reward the in-person, retail politics we see in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters expect to meet each candidate two or three times.

However, perhaps a more compelling reason rests upon the distinct roles that different-size states play in the selection process. As pundit Pat Buchanan stated recently, the small, early states are needed to “clear the deck” of redundant candidates so that a hopeful with a 30 percent base of support does not win the nomination by a plurality. By the time the race gets to the larger states and the Super Tuesday states, the field will be narrowed to two or three candidates and voters in those states will be able to make a clear, decisive choice among them.

Finally, presidential historian Theodore H. White wrote in 1973 that the primary is “the underdog’s classic route to power in America.” The “underdog” scenario, which is as much a part of our national psyche as the storied snows of the New Hampshire primary, is only possible if we maintain the traditional primary and caucus calendar. For instance, a relatively unknown former one-term governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter succeeded in Iowa in 1976 and knocked out a sitting president later that year.

Of course, the counterargument raised this week by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona is that the smaller states do not necessarily create a more democratic process because a small group of party activists in Iowa, for example, often can dictate the race for the country at large. In-person campaigning on doorsteps and in living rooms may be no better a platform for vetting a candidate because it overemphasizes the candidate’s ability to be charming and contemporaneous on his feet.

No matter which solution is preferable, it is mystifying that the national parties have failed to show leadership in this clearly foreseeable situation. As veteran political analyst Charlie Cook wrote recently, the states are left to scramble their calendars frantically every four years. And as we saw in 2008, both parties’ reactions in disenfranchising portions of the Florida and Michigan delegations for violating the calendar rules took us even further away from a democratic process.

It is unlikely that the Republican Party will sanction Florida this time (aside from the standard taking away of half its delegates) because the party’s convention will be held in Tampa next summer. Despite these arguments in support of early states holding their traditional spots, we are no closer to solving the primary calendar dilemma.

Adam Silbert is an attorney and was a deputy field organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign.

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