Friday, July 11, 2003

Though the most recent Gallup Poll indicates that Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is the most popular nationally of the nine Democrats (so far) running for president, some pundits are speculating he may be forced out of the race because he is doing poorly in the “money primary.”

Reports to the Federal Election Commission for second quarter fundraising aren’t due until July 15, but it appears that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean will lead the pack with more than $7 million raised in the last three months. Mr. Lieberman, who says he has raised a bit more than $5 million, will be bunched with Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, and Rep.Dick Gephardt of Missouri, but likely will be at the back of that bunch.

Because Mr. Lieberman was far behind Messrs. Edwards and Kerry (and only a hair above Mr. Dean) in first quarter fundraising, this signals real trouble, according to the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, the academic analyst of politics journalists most like to quote.

The former vice presidential candidate “ought to be well ahead, given his status in the party,” Mr. Sabato told USA Today. “If he doesn’t do well for the second quarter in a row, he’s going to hear comments suggesting that he should drop out.”

The “money primary” is important because there are so many primaries (36), and because the schedule is so compressed. Between Jan. 27, when New Hampshire holds its primary, and Mar. 2 — when 10 states, including California, New York, Ohio and Massachussetts — hold primaries, 20 primaries will have been held. If you don’t have lots of cash in the bank before the primaries begin, you’ll be dead in the water.

Mr. Lieberman has another problem. Though Gallup indicates he leads Mr. Dean, 20 percent to 6 percent, among Democrats nationally, Mr. Lieberman is a non-factor in Iowa, which will hold the first presidential caucus Jan. 19, and trails badly in New Hampshire. Because there are so many primaries, these first in the nation contests carry undue weight.

A willingness to contribute money is the best measure of intensity of support, a legitimate factor in choosing a nominee. (Mr. Dean has gained enormously from small contributions raised through the Internet.) And a “money primary” is needed to cull the cranks (Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich, Carol Mosely Braun) from the field. But a nation which chooses its leaders mostly on the basis of how much money they can raise is a plutocracy, not a democracy.

Anyone who has awakened with a hangover knows it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Ordinary people had more say in the political process — and a better bunch of candidates to choose from — in 1960, when there were only 16 Democratic primaries, than they have today.

Reducing drastically the number of primaries would reduce dramatically the cost of campaigning, and hence the importance of the “money primary.”

Spreading out the primary schedule would give people in states other than Iowa and New Hampshire the opportunity to meet candidates face to face.

Reducing the number of primaries also could mean that election-year politicking largely could be confined to the calendar year in which the election takes place. If there were only a dozen or so primaries — all save California in smallish states — it wouldn’t be difficult to construct a system in which delegate selection contests would not begin before March, and would end in June.

We hold elections in order to form governments. But all politics all the time undermines the ability to make compromises on which effective government in a democracy depends. Reducing the number of primaries not only would give us better election campaigns, it would give us better government afterwards.

Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the reagan administration and is a national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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