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.

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