Thursday, February 23, 2012

Predicting the 84th Academy Awards

If you follow film pundits closely enough, it's actually quite easy to predict the Oscars. Rather than relying on past voting trends, complicated delegate math, or some other magic juice, the likely winners of this springtime election are identified through getting a proper sense for where the wind in Hollywood is blowing. This year, everyone is talking about The Artist, and consequently that's what will likely take home the gold in the Best Picture category on Sunday.

On the other hand, it's extremely hard to get a perfect score in your Oscar pool. While most categories feature consensus favorites, there are always a handful where there is a true horse race, and there the best you can do is guess—or, perhaps, apply a little magic juice.

According to the diverse and knowledgeable Gurus o' Gold, there are three categories this year that are truly tossups. (That leaves 21 that you can be relatively sure of for that Oscar pool.) Rather than just taking a random stab at them, though, let's try to see what clues Oscar history might hold as to the winners.

Best Editing
This is a two-horse race between this year's two most-nominated films: French silent flick The Artist and Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The Gurus currently tilt toward The Artist (eight votes to five, with one lone Moneyball dissenter), as do oddsmakers. It's something of a turnaround from a week ago, when Hugo was considered the slight favorite. What changed, and can we expect it to stay that way?

For answers, we need look no further than last weekend, when the American Cinema Editors snubbed Hugo in favor of The Descendants in their drama category yet stuck with The Artist for best editing in a musical or comedy. The winners of the ACE's "Eddies" (ha ha... get it?) have an uncanny knack for winning Best Editing from the Academy as well: 10 of the last 10 years, in fact, and 18 out of 20. True, the majority of those times, it was the Eddie winner for dramatic film that took Oscar gold. But with Kevin Tent's work on The Descendants probably too subtle to be noticed by rank-and-file Academy voters and currently not taken seriously as a contender, The Artist seems primed to join Chicago as a comedic winner of the category.

The Artist also seems to have an edge because of its heavy frontrunner status for Best Picture and Best Director, two categories that correlate closely with Best Editing. An analysis of the last 20 ceremonies reveals that the winner of Best Editing was 11 for 20 in the Best Picture field and also 11 for 20 in Best Director. Moreover, many of those nine that missed a Best Picture win (e.g., The Aviator, Traffic, Saving Private Ryan) are considered to have done so narrowly, so that statistic could be soft. Overall, 17 of the last 20 Editing winners were Best Picture nominees; coincidentally, 17 of 20 (but a different 17 of 20) were also Best Director nominees. The only exceptions come when the Academy is confronted by an action movie (such as The Bourne Ultimatum or The Matrix) that they absolutely adore (those two movies won every Oscar they were nominated for). But there is no such movie in the field this year, so count on Best Editing being one of the first dominos to fall if The Artist achieves even a mini-sweep on Sunday (the odds of which are very good).

For the record, the same historical analysis strangely showed that Best Editing also has an 11-for-20 matching-winner rate and a 17-for-20 matching-nominee rate with Best Sound Mixing (formerly Best Sound). This seems spurious to me, but it may be worth noting that The Artist, as a silent film, is not nominated in that category this year. Even juicier, Hugo is one of the frontrunners for Best Sound Mixing this year. However, as the connection between the two is not clear, I wouldn't put too much stock in this coincidence.

Could something other than The Artist or Hugo win this category? The Academy has occasionally opted for complex movies with many simultaneous storylines (which must be edited together, of course) such as The Social Network and Crash. On this slate of nominees, both Moneyball and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo feature flashbacks of this ilk, but I simply don't think that's enough to overcome their lack of fit otherwise. Here's my guess for how the voting will break down:

1. The Artist
2. Hugo
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
4. Moneyball
5. The Descendants

Best Costume Design
This may be the most wide-open category, with four of the five nominees getting votes from the Gurus. Likewise, Las Vegas sees it as a race between Hugo and The Artist, with the former perhaps a very slight favorite, while Anonymous and Jane Eyre lurk in the background.

In the past, this category has rewarded almost nothing but period pieces. From 2006 through 2009 the winners were as follows: Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Duchess, and The Young Victoria. How's that for consistency? Unfortunately for us, though, neither Hugo nor The Artist is an historical drama about royalty; indeed, frustratingly, they are both more recent period pieces about the days of early cinema, both set within a year of 1930. However, the Gurus' dark horses, Anonymous and Jane Eyre, are set in Elizabethan and Victorian times, respectively; the queen herself is a character (along with several earls) in Anonymous.

Dovetailing nicely with its preference for period work, the Academy's philosophy for costume design has also historically been "more is more"—that is, the showiest work wins. This held true last year, when Alice in Wonderland won in a photo finish with The King's Speech; it was also evident in the wins for Memoirs of a Geisha and Moulin Rouge! Between Hugo and The Artist, this would seem to favor the Scorsese flick; The Artist's black and white mutes the costumes somewhat, whereas Hugo features some very whimsical getups when depicting some of the earliest fantasy films. Meanwhile, though, Anonymous and Jane Eyre sport the obvious frilliness that the Academy loves.

Clearly, then, the nominees divide into two camps: juggernaut and artsy. Based on the category's history, the artsy would seem to have the edge—but which one? A precursor award may again hold a clue. The Costume Design Guild has only a so-so record of choosing the same winners as the Academy (six of the last 13 Oscar winners also won one of the guild's three awards), but the CDG has at least nominated the eventual Oscar winner every year since 2001. This bodes poorly for Anonymous, which somehow missed the cut for the guild this year. Jane Eyre's odds with bookies are also significantly better, making it the favorite in my view.

Meanwhile, to break the tie between the juggernauts, let's look at other Oscar categories that are traditionally closely aligned with Best Costume Design. Only one category shared its winner with Best Costume Design more often than five times out of the past 20 (a poor 25% correlation): fellow eye-candy fodder Best Art Direction. Eleven of the past 20 winners in that category were also the best dressed. This year, the clear favorite for Best Art Direction is Hugo. Not only that, but the winner of Best Costume Design was at least nominated for Best Art Direction 17 times in the last 20 years (note to self: play the numbers 11, 17, and 20 at Powerball). Neither Jane Eyre nor Anonymous scored nods for their art directors this year, though. If history is to be trusted, Costume Design will ultimately fall to one of the juggernauts, and the more likely choice is Hugo.

However, I believe there is too much precedent standing in the way of a win for longtime Scorsese costume designer Sandy Powell. Begin with the fact that Best Costume Design is a notoriously Best Picture–unfriendly category: only five of the last 20 best films have won in Costume Design (yet another point against The Artist), and only eight Costume Design winners were even Best Picture nominees. Of course, I'm not saying that voters go out of their way to punish their favorite films here–just that they don't feel limited to them. In this category more than others, voters feel the freedom to go with otherwise unaccomplished movies whose costumes really stand out. Moreover, while it's rare for the award to go to a non-nominee in Art Direction, it's not unprecedented, especially in recent years. In fact, Marie Antoinette won in 2006 when Costume Design was its only nomination—a feat Anonymous and Jane Eyre look to duplicate this weekend. My final rankings for an extremely difficult category:

1. Jane Eyre
2. Anonymous (but at 33/1 odds, it might be worth putting $10 on!)
3. Hugo
4. The Artist
5. W.E.

Best Sound Editing
Sound is another place where the showiest—or, in this case, loudest—contender usually wins. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, blockbusters and other action fare do well in this category. This year, the field is led by our old friend Hugo (eight Guru votes and consistently the best odds), but Steven Spielberg's War Horse is a strong contender as well (five votes).

Immediately, it's clear that War Horse fits perfectly into the fraternity of past winners. Each of the past 14 winners has been either a modern war movie (The Hurt Locker, Letters from Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, U-571, Saving Private Ryan), a historical/medieval war movie (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), a disaster movie (King Kong, Titanic), or just the boring ol' action film with more hand-to-hand combat and gunfire (Inception, The Dark Knight, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Incredibles, The Matrix). In this sense, Hugo, without a single scene of violence, might actually be the least likely winner!

This has been borne out on the award circuit so far as well. While Hugo did score for its only nomination (Best Music in a Feature Film) at the Motion Picture Sound Editors' Golden Reel Awards, War Horse took home that organization's highest honor—also the one most closely associated with the Oscar. In sum, if we weren't looking at the odds or the pundits, it would appear that War Horse had a mortal lock on Best Sound Editing.

Another key kernel of wisdom for this category is that its winner often tracks with the winner of its twin award, Best Sound Mixing—but not as often as it has the reputation for. In 10 of the last 20 years (but four of the past six), the same film has taken home both trophies. (The record for Sound Mixing nominees in this category, which Hugo and War Horse both are, is again 17 for 20.) When the awards split, it is frequently because Sound Editing is more "niche" than Sound Mixing, which tends toward the mainstream (read: major Best Picture competitor). The Academy also consistently honors musicals with Best Sound Mixing for their skillful interweaving of normal audio with musical numbers.

If the pattern holds, Best Sound Editing will go to Hugo, the generally accepted favorite for Best Sound Mixing. But the pattern has a 50/50 chance of not holding, and the two categories could yet split. If this happens (as at least two Gurus are predicting), it would make sense that Best Sound Mixing would go to the popular Hugo and Best Sound Editing to the film that has been somewhat shunted to the side: War Horse. What's more, Hugo isn't even a sure thing in Best Sound Mixing, which has the same love for eardrum-splitting battles as Best Sound Editing does and could conceivably go to War Horse as well. In my opinion, it would be a mistake to base our Sound Editing prediction on a shaky assumption about Sound Mixing; in a more stable year, this datum might be more useful to us. If War Horse does win Best Sound Mixing, though, you can count on it taking Best Sound Editing, too.

In the bottom tier, Drive has the longest shot; the lack of nominations (this is its only one) for a film that probably deserved more tells you all you need to know about how much the Academy liked it. The two remaining nominees, Dragon Tattoo and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, both fit the action-film mold of the award. But Academy voters can be notorious snobs, voting only for films that don't stink (possibly out of a desire to keep "unworthy" films from being able to brag "Oscar winner!" on their Blu-ray boxes), so don't expect Transformers to be much of a factor. Dragon Tattoo did have some very impressive sound work, but it's simply not in the same league as the two frontrunners in this category. The final standings for Best Sound Editing:

1. War Horse
2. Hugo
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
5. Drive

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Could the Pirates Contend in 2012?

At some point this weekend, the Yankees and Pirates will formalize a trade that most prominently sends embattled starter AJ Burnett to Pittsburgh. Because of the obvious differences between the baseball markets in New York and Pittsburgh, media coverage of the trade has been overwhelmingly Yankee-centric, emphasizing New York's subtraction of an ineffective pitcher and its newfound payroll flexibility. But what about the Pirates—why would they make this deal?

At first I admit I was mystified; Pittsburgh can't expect to contend in 2012, so why is this small-market team interested in dealing for a fairly expensive player (the Pirates will pay Burnett $13 million over the next two years—probably more than he would have received as a free agent this offseason)? But then it dawned on me: maybe they do expect to contend in 2012.

You can bet that the Pirates brass hasn't forgotten last summer, when they were 51-44 and sitting on top of the NL Central on July 19 before the bottom fell out of their season. Perhaps motivated by this taste of success, the Pirates have been unusually active in the hot-stove league this offseason, having been linked to Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson (and snubbed by both despite sizable financial offers). They also offered arbitration to Derrek Lee, which demonstrated a willingness to commit up to $7 million to him for 2012, but (perhaps luckily for the Pirates) he didn't bite. This suggests that they believe that they are only a few key pieces away from true contention—and maybe that's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Think about it. If the Pirates were in the American League, then yes, they'd stand no chance—there are too many dominant teams standing in their way. But the National League is significantly weaker, and with the likely addition of a second wild card this year, it's not at all clear who the favorites are. The NL Central, down a Pujols and a Fielder, is also relatively feeble this year. With the woeful Astros and the rebuilding Cubs, the worst the Pirates can do is probably fourth place. And while the world-champion Cardinals have to be considered the class of the division at this point, the Reds are coming off an underwhelming 79-83 season, while the Brewers will lack the meat of their 2011 lineup (remember that Ryan Braun is likely to miss 50 games due to failing a banned-substances test). It's possible that the Pirates' aggressiveness is because they see an opening.

Of course, relative standing matters little; a team shouldn't expect to reach the playoffs without at least 85 wins. Where the Pirates probably see those wins materializing is in their underrated rotation. With Burnett and fellow offseason acquisition Érik Bédard, the staff is now led by two veterans who have both had significant success in the past but who could not duplicate it on the big stage in New York or Boston. (Very smartly, Pittsburgh may have realized that players who cannot succeed in the spotlight are the newest market inefficiency—and one that, by definition, only they and other small-market teams can tap into.) Backing up the old hands are the Pirates' breakout youngsters of 2011, including James McDonald and Charlie Morton. Picture this rotation for Pittsburgh in 2012:

AJ Burnett
Not too long ago, Burnett was a reliable workhorse: he went 18-10 with a league-leading 231 strikeouts in 2008 and could boast a 114 ERA+ in 2009. His 2011 ERA of 5.15 hid a 3.86 xFIP, suggesting that a bounceback year is quite possible.

Érik Bédard
Known to be one of the game's most delicate hurlers, Bédard actually threw more innings in 2011 (129.1) than any year since his excellent 2007, when he led the league with 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings. When he does take the mound, he has always pitched well (his highest ERA since 2006 is 3.67).

Charlie Morton
Bet you didn't know that Morton delivered a 3.83 ERA in 29 starts for the 2011 Pirates; their brain trust likely sees him as a foundation to build off. (For the record, I am not a believer in Morton—he of the 1.43 K/BB ratio and extremely lucky 0.3 home runs per nine innings.)

James McDonald
On the flip side, McDonald figures to be significantly better than his pedestrian 2011 numbers (9-9, 4.21). Between April 27 and September 5, he went 9-5 with a 3.16 ERA and 120/58 K/BB ratio.

Jeff Karstens
When he's on, Karstens may be the best pitcher in this rotation. In June and July 2011, Karstens dominated the league with a 5-1 record and 1.77 ERA. His overall numbers were very good, too: a 113 ERA+, 1.21 WHIP, 1.8 walks per nine innings, and 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings (for those keeping score at home, that's a 2.91 K/BB ratio).

If anyone gets hurt (no small "if" in Bédard's case), Kevin Correia is ready to step in. Although his ERA ended the year at an ugly 4.79, the 2011 All-Star got off to a strong start with a 2.90 April. Unfortunately, his ERA got worse every month thereafter (4.15 in May, 4.46 in June, 6.08 in July, and 8.41 in August!); a bullpen role could keep his arm fresher throughout the season.

How do the Pirates stack up with other facets of their team? Not well, I'm afraid. They've made few changes to an offense that finished 27th in runs scored last season. However, a lot of baseball pundits are picking the Kansas City Royals to make major strides this season thanks to the development of some promising offensive pieces, and the same might be said about the Pirates—the team has high hopes for José Tábata and Alex Presley, while they also pray that Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, and Casey McGehee can rediscover the talent that they flashed earlier in their careers. The potential is present, certainly, but a lot of things would have to break right for the Pirates to avoid a San Francisco Giants–esque fate (good pitching held back by a horrid offense).

Still, the Giants finished 86-76 with the 29th best offense in baseball last year. If the Pirates were to achieve a similar result in 2012, they would be ecstatic, because it would be the franchise's first winning season since 1992. It's the longest streak of losing seasons in American professional sports history—doubly sad because it has happened to a team with such a proud and storied history and to a city that has always been an excellent baseball town. Nowadays, Pittsburgh is in danger of losing that status; as its legacy of winning fades more and more into the past, its reputation for futility—and, to a degree, apathy about winning—has begun to lose it its respect in the baseball community. That shouldn't be, and while the Pirates aren't my team, I'll be rooting for them to do well this year.

But I'll be honest: While it's nice to see some effort and optimism come out of the Pirates front office, I don't think its on-field product will get even a whiff of October baseball this year. Will they be competitive? Maybe. The .500 mark seems like a high, but clearable, bar. Then again, that may be as high as the front office needs to reach in 2012. After wandering in the wilderness for so long, the Pirates simply need to regain their footing on the competitive landscape. A winning season, even if it falls 10 games short of a playoff berth, would reawaken Pittsburgh's dormant fan base and serve as a statement to players (both Pittsburgh's own and prospective free agents): "We're back." Very quietly, the current regime in Pittsburgh has made progress toward a return to respectability.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Mitt Romney's Electability Problem

After Tuesday's election results, everyone and their mother is talking about Mitt Romney's predicament. The New York Times's Nate Silver has a particularly thorough post mortem: no matter how hard he tries, Romney cannot seal the deal with key segments of the Republican electorate.

Specifically, Nate notes Romney's low batting average in caucus states (1 for 4) and Midwestern states (0 for 3). To explain this, he teases out some damning numbers for the Romney campaign: their candidate has consistently struggled to win over very conservative voters, Tea Partiers, those who are not well off, and non-urban dwellers. And then there's the trend that Newt Gingrich himself has noted: counties won by Romney have seen depressed turnout this year (compared to the 2008 Republican primaries), while Gingrich or Santorum counties have seen increased turnout and enthusiasm. In his article, Nate examines all this evidence and concludes that Romney could have a much uglier, tougher path to the nomination than everyone assumes.

However, I take a slightly longer view. As Nate does acknowledge, Romney remains the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP nomination for president. He has the most delegates thus far in the race. He still leads in national polls; he has the most money. Crucially, the Republican establishment also remains behind him. Most importantly, however, he is the only candidate who is organized in almost every state and who is capable of contending in every last primary contest, should the race go that long.

Therefore, as entertaining as the rest of primary season may be, I'm not too concerned about it from a predictive point of view. I'm much more interested in the outcome of the ultimate Obama-Romney battle royal—and Nate's observations are as least as insightful when it comes to November.

In general elections, the Midwest is often a crucial swing region—but I would argue that it is nothing less than the key to victory this fall. The reason lies in President Obama's electoral math. Of the states he won in 2008 (en route to an impressive 358 electoral votes), he figures to remain competitive in Virginia and North Carolina, thanks to continued popularity among African-Americans. Similarly, his odds look good in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada—and he might even be competitive in Arizona—thanks to high Hispanic support. So where is all the Obama disapproval that everyone talks about? You guessed it—the Midwest.

If Barack Obama loses the White House this year, it will be due to the collapse of his popularity among the working-class white voters who inhabit the electoral-vote-rich Rust Belt. Polls show that even Michigan and Pennsylvania, which haven't voted Republican since 1988, may be in play. The votes of those two states have come to be seen by Democrats as part of their baseline of support, from which they can springboard to wins in other states—losses there would be devastating. Meanwhile, it is a well-documented fact that no Republican has won the White House without Ohio.

Whoever he is, the Republican nominee must win over the voters in these states to win the presidency. Yet here is Mitt Romney, failing to win any states in the Midwest in three tries—and those who do vote for him seem unenthusiastic. So far this cycle, Romney has shown himself incapable of winning over the white, working-class Midwesterners who represent Obama's greatest vulnerability. It's not hard to see why, either; his blue-blooded background makes it difficult for him to connect to these voters, and his gaffes—which overwhelmingly revolve around the "I'm rich and privileged" narrative—hit particularly hard among the Rust Belt demographic. (Michiganders and their neighbors haven't heard the last about how Romney opposed bailing out the auto industry, either.) If Romney's troubles in the Midwest persist—although that's a big if, considering that Election Day is nine months away—he will have squandered his party's greatest weapon and failed to exploit his opponent's greatest weakness. If Romney's troubles in the Midwest persist, he will lose to President Obama.

Which brings us full circle back to the Republican primary fight. Much of Romney's advantage derives from the fact that he is perceived to be strongest in a matchup with Obama—in other words, the most electable Republican. But given this new information, the candidate with the most credible claim to that mantle may be Rick Santorum—not because he won in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, but more for his Pennsylvania roots and ability to connect with Rust Belt voters. This both feels like it would be true and is borne out in the numbers; a recent PPP poll in Ohio found that Obama performs worse there against Santorum than against Romney (although the president dispatches both handily). The Santorum campaign would do well to start up a new narrative based on this electability argument; if it actually catches on, it will be fascinating to watch the reaction from Boston and in the polls. As Nate concludes, maybe this thing ain't over yet.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Nomination Reform: A Fanciful Proposal

As any fan of the TV show "The West Wing" knows, for decades there has been a debate over whether it is appropriate to use sampling in the taking of the decennial US Census. Those in favor believe that sampling—taking a cross-section of the population and extrapolating data out for the whole country—is more efficient and, in fact, more accurate. Those against proffer the slippery-slope argument: if we use sampling for the US Census, why not conduct, say, elections that way?

Why not, indeed. While the idea of using what are essentially polls to determine the winners of general elections—when there is true power at stake—is certainly inappropriate, it might be a different story for a type of election that is already considered a bit of a farce in America today: the primary election. Although it could never be taken seriously by either major party, what if presidential nominees were chosen not by Iowa, New Hampshire, and the like, but by a poll instead?

The idea is not totally without merit. The current process is quite obviously flawed, giving undue weight to the two rural, non-diverse states of Iowa and New Hampshire. How would a poll be any worse? (The sample size might be smaller, yes, but it would be far more representative.) And there could be no intellectually honest arguments about how a primary-by-poll would subvert democracy; presidential nominating contests were never meant to be democratic. Until the late 20th century, parties' nominees for president were chosen in the famous smoke-filled rooms by party elders. Any nominee-selecting system that considers the input of the general public would be better than the system we thrived on for 200 years. And any other nominee-selecting system that considers the input of the general public would probably be better than the one we have, which still usually picks a nominee before a majority of the country has had a chance to cast their ballots one way or another.

Here's how it would work. A pollster, or series of pollsters, is contracted by each party. (Remember, the parties are private entities; they're free to choose whichever partisan, inaccurate, or book-cooking pollster(s) they wish. Again, I contend it's no more jerry-rigged than the current process.) The pollster prepares to conduct a massive, country-wide poll—of, say, 2,000 registered voters (normal polls have sample sizes of 500-1,000). These 2,000 voters are chosen by lottery to make the sample size as representative as possible of the American public—by race, sex, religion, educational background, family income, what have you. In this way, the nominee of the party is guaranteed to be chosen by a true cross-section of the nation—a nominee for all.

The parties then have two options: either go ahead and conduct the poll or announce the "winners" of the lottery. The latter has the potential to be brilliant and revolutionary or foolish and corrupting. By announcing the lottery winners—and therefore the 2,000 people who will decide their next presidential nominee—the party creates a Swing Vote–type scenario where each candidate is required to solicit the lottery winners' votes individually. (After all, if the random sampling was done properly, they are scattered all over the country and thus can't be reached en masse.) This removes the big-money element of campaigns, such as political advertisements, and (in an ideal world) puts the focus on each candidate's demeanor and positions on the issues. Namely, it facilitates the kind of retail politics that Iowa and New Hampshire are praised for—voters confront candidates face to face, while candidates are constantly reminded of the roots of their support and the concerns of everyday Americans.

True, it is somewhat likely that announcing the lottery winners would lead the campaign to devolve into a series of personal promises on the 2,000 voters' pet issues—not so different from big donors getting access to politicians that isn't available to poor commoners. And it's possible that the retail politicking could get so retail that it is conducted outside the view of the general public—resulting in a nominee who isn't as well known. So perhaps the chosen pollster should just conduct the poll immediately after all, and the winner of a plurality of votes would simply and easily be declared the nominee. (With such a large sample size, it's almost certain that the poll would be a close approximation of the results of a nationwide vote.)

Make no doubt about it, the primary-by-poll reform idea would radically transform the way presidential campaigns are run—but that's part of the point. Sure, it's a fanciful proposal. Yet inside-the-box thinking doesn't appear to be getting us any closer to a perfect presidential selection process. I'm happy to add one more kooky idea to the pile, just in the name of intellectual exploration. Maybe, just maybe, someday we'll come up with something so crazy, it just might work.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Nomination Reform: A Serious Proposal

Lovers of politics across the country have just closed the book on a phenomenally exciting January. Between financial filings, resignations, seven debates, three dropouts, and one big speech, we have somehow managed to fit in four presidential nominating contests. A total of 115 delegates have been awarded (out of 2286), only 9% of Americans have had the chance to vote, and yet the process feels like it is winding down.

Every four years we seem to rediscover the problem—nomination battles are often sewn up after only a privileged sliver of the population gets to weigh in. Certain states' votes matter cycle in and cycle out, while others have never known the taste of a competitive primary or caucus.

True—for a political junkie, there's something comforting about the two familiar faces, Iowa and New Hampshire, always going first. But the idea that they are somehow better informed or better qualified to vet candidates is stretching the truth. One often-cited statistic is that it would be difficult to find two less diverse states: Iowa is 91% white; New Hampshire, 94%. A subtler stat smashes the myth that Iowans in particular have politics in their blood: this year's Iowa caucuses turnout was 122,255, which is only 5.4% of the state's 2.25 million eligible voters. (That's worse than many municipal elections.) The Iowa caucuses aren't even representative of Iowans.

Following Iowa and New Hampshire is typically a rapid succession of other states that elbowed their way to the front of the line. Often, as in 2008, Super Tuesday comes right on their heels. But awarding so many delegates so soon after Iowa and New Hampshire is dangerous due to the polling bump and media attention that the winners of those two states receive. Even though larger and more numerous states may technically be casting their votes on Super Tuesday, the media narrative out of Iowa and New Hampshire directs them how to do so. That's a lot of influence that goes back to only a few hundred thousand people.

Make no mistake, reform is needed. One particularly elegant solution, in my view, is a variation on the so-called "Delaware plan."

Under such a plan, the states are broken into groups by population, and the groups vote in order—one per month—from smallest states to biggest states. My particular version of the plan calls for five groupings as follows:

Group 1 (1st Tuesday in February): American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, Guam, Wyoming, the District of Columbia, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, and Iowa (4.2% of US population)

Group 2 (1st Tuesday in March): Hawaii, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Oregon (6.7% of US population)

Group 3 (1st Tuesday in April): Arkansas, Mississippi, Connecticut, Puerto Rico, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Colorado (12.9% of US population)

Group 4 (1st Tuesday in May): Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Washington, Virginia, New Jersey, and North Carolina (26.1% of US population)

Group 5 (1st Tuesday in June): Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida, New York, Texas, and California (50.3% of US population)

The Delaware plan rests on a simple premise—every state's vote should count. To this end, party bosses should ask themselves how a given state's primary or caucus comes to be considered valuable. Fundamentally, there are two ways: by having many delegates up for grabs or by having an early election date. Big states, by definition, have one of these advantages built in; conversely, small states must vote early in the process in order to matter. Hence the Delaware plan—small states matter because they bat leadoff, and big states matter because, well, they're big. In fact, under the Delaware plan, a nominee cannot be crowned until every vote has been cast. Because a majority of Americans do not vote until Group 5, it's mathematically impossible for a candidate to clinch the nomination without the votes of those big states.

Meanwhile, keeping small states first preserves the essential element of retail politics. As close readers of this blog know, I'm somewhat obsessed with the magic of politics on a microscopic scale. If you ask me, there's nowhere better to discuss education policy than in the local high school—not least because of the intimate audience it provides ordinary citizens with those who wish to be their voice in Washington. Politicians are kept most honest and informed when they have to meet voters to get votes (as opposed to making their pitch via TV commercials and convention-center speeches), and smaller states are obviously more conducive to this approach. An added benefit is that retail politics puts all candidates—resource-rich frontrunners and scrappy underdogs—on the same footing. Only well-funded or already-famous candidates can use the media to contact voters, but everyone is equally capable of going out into the cold and shaking hands. This is a common argument in favor of Iowa and New Hampshire, but the Delaware plan would be even kinder to a greater number of underdogs. In Iowa, or in New Hampshire, by definition there can be only one winner. With 16 states and territories voting in Group 1, however, the Delaware plan allows for more candidates to claim victory early on.

The Delaware plan is also one of several nomination-reform proposals that would rein in the chaotic scheduling of primary season. With a controlled one-month period between elections, a candidate would be hard-pressed to catch fire in a few early states and stampede to the nomination before anyone realizes what has happened. This can lead to a weaker and less thoroughly vetted nominee who goes down to an easy defeat in November—John Kerry for Democrats and John McCain for Republicans are two recent examples. Therefore, while it is fair to say that the Delaware plan enables a couple of small states to disproportionately catapult an underdog into the top tier, it would also force that candidate to prove that he or she has the staying power needed for a grueling general election. Over the next month or months, a candidate who is a true flash in the pan (we've seen several this cycle) will settle back into the pack. On the other hand, if an underdog can withstand the scrutiny of the spotlight and make good on that early momentum—if he or she can convert it into a fundraising edge, exploit every bit of subsequent media coverage, and build up a massive, advanced campaign operation capable of winning the Goliaths of Group 5—then he or she is a candidate worthy of the fall.

One complaint against the Delaware plan is that it is biased toward conservative candidates—red states, by virtue of the fact that they tend to be smaller than blue ones, tend to vote earlier in the process. But there are many problems with this quibble. First, it ignores the basic premise of the plan—that every state matters equally because of where it sits on the spectrum between "important because it's early" and "important because it's huge." If you believe that going first is inherently more valuable than having many delegates, then this isn't the plan for you anyway. (You might as well say that the Delaware plan is biased toward small states.) Second, it ignores the fact that these are primary elections—by definition restricted to partisans on one side or the other. Republicans in blue states are not necessarily more liberal than those in red states. (Fun tidbit: if the non-Mormon population of Utah were its own state, it would be the most liberal in the nation.) Finally, even if there is a conservative bias, you have to let the chips fall where they may. Designing an enduring nomination system according to 2008-era red-versus-blue battle lines makes about as much sense as realigning MLB leagues in order to break up the Red Sox' and Yankees' dominance of the AL East. Eventually regional coalitions will shift.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the Delaware plan, however, is not any issue with the plan itself, but rather a preference for a different nomination system. One of the most popular reform ideas is a rotating regional primary, whereby the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West take turns voting first. The rationale behind this proposal is that grouping states regionally reduces the "wear and tear" of campaign travel—an admirable goal. This is why the Delaware plan originally proposed by the RNC in 2000 falls short, in my view. The tweaked plan outlined here, however, is a compromise between the two—following the Delaware template but swapping states where possible to make the groups more regionally cohesive. For example, most of Group 1 is clustered in the Upper Plains and New England, much of Group 3 is in the South, and Group 5 features a succession of Rust Belt states. However, my plan remains geographically diverse enough that it precludes a nominee who is incapable of mounting—over time, at least—a national campaign.

The most opposition to this plan is likely to come from the states that have the most to lose from it—namely, our old friends Iowa and New Hampshire. Any state would understandably chafe at the idea of having such prestige and influence wrested away from it, but as we have seen, they do the nation a disservice by monopolizing the front of the calendar. If the Delaware plan (or any alternative reform effort) has any hope of being a reality, it has to acknowledge the non-negotiability of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary to residents of those states.

This particular version of the Delaware plan does that. Although it doesn't allow the two states to hog the spotlight any longer, it does put them both in the first group of voting states. (This was another custom-made adjustment, since Iowa, at over 3 million residents, doesn't come close to being among the smallest states in the union.) If we recognize that there's no way that Iowa and New Hampshire will accept being reshuffled into the desk, maybe there is room to have them share the honor of going first. As it is, they already compete for media attention and candidate visits—with each other, as well as other early states like South Carolina. New Hampshire might even welcome the Delaware plan if it means those pesky Iowans won't get to vote before they do anymore.

The Delaware plan isn't perfect, but no nomination system can be. Nevertheless, due to its simple elegance and status as a compromise between certain other reform proposals, I believe that it is the best realistic option open to us. But what if we were to think about unrealistic options? In my next post I'll throw out an alternative—and much more original—way to pick a nominee.