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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

January 24: There’s No Magic Wand for Reforming the Nominating Process

Just before the Iowa Caucuses occur, there’s always a crescendo of criticism of the presidential nominating process. But reforming it isn’t easy, as I explained at New York:

Perhaps it’s unhappiness with the winter weather in Iowa and New Hampshire, or more credible concern about the demographics of these two largely white states (offset, to some extent, a few cycles ago with the addition of Nevada and South Carolina to the ranks of protected early states). But whatever it is you can count on alternative proposals of various seriousness. Today we have one tested in a new Monmouth University poll:

“Nearly six in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents questioned in a new Monmouth University survey supported dramatically changing the current system of choosing their party’s presidential nominee.

“Given a list of four options, 58 percent of those questioned say they’d rather a single national primary be held where every state holds its primary or caucus on the same day.

“Only 11 percent called for keeping the calendar in its current form, with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina holding the first four contests ahead of the rest of the country. Fifteen percent want to modify the current calendar, by letting a few other states vote on the same days as Iowa and New Hampshire. And one in 10 say they want to see grouped state primaries.”

Great, a single national primary day. There’s only one problem: How are you going to do that?

Such polls — and for that matter, a lot of the commentary devoted to kvetching about Iowa and New Hampshire specifically or the nominating process generally — seem premised on the entirely erroneous presumption that we have a national system imposed by the Democratic National Committee deploying some sort of fiat powers. What we actually have is a set of nominating contests created, run, and financed by state legislatures and state parties with the DNC keeping things relatively organized via carrots and sticks. When it comes to the calendar, it’s not a system at all. It’s a loose framework based on what the states (in many cases legislatures controlled by the opposing party) can be talked and nudged into doing.

A complete overhaul could be accomplished, presumably, by some sort of interstate compact, though those generally take a good while to enact, and again, differences in the values and constituencies of the two parties would complicate everything. And the kind of one-day national primary the Monmouth poll finds so much support for would be particularly difficult, since some states prefer to hold their presidential and regular state primaries on the same day. Finding one that works for so many different contests in so many places may be impossible.

This particular “reform,” moreover, has its own perils. If you were to hold a one-day national primary right now, the odds-on favorite might well be Michael Bloomberg, the candidate whose ability to spend literally billions on his campaign could make him unbeatable in a landscape that broad, wide, and simultaneous. Is sticking it to Iowa and New Hampshire, or getting it all over with quickly, worth that risk?

The thing to do (which Democrats have done in the past — including the immediate past — to incrementally reform the nominating process) is to set up a reform initiative immediately following the current contest, when it’s more practicable and less likely to serve the interests of a single candidate. If it finds overwhelming and urgent support for a major change, it would have time to help draw up a framework and design a path to its adoption.

But make no mistake: Working around the edges of the current system will be a lot easier than adopting some grandiose scheme. And if you are going to directly take on Iowa and New Hampshire, you’d best build yourself a large coalition of states prepared to go to war because otherwise the early state folk will beat you to a long list of allies.

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