Monday, July 20, 2009

Presidential Primary Reform Week: National Primary with a Twist

This is part one in a series of posts this week dealing with presidential primary reform. As a refresher you can also look at FHQ's earlier synopsis of several of the various reform proposals that have been talked about and/or considered. The maps are a little clunky, but will suffice for now. I'm planning a revamping of them in the not too distant future.

On Friday, FairVote went public with a novel idea for presidential nomination reform. Here's their idea (and please follow the link above to read the full explanation of the proposal):
"The entire political universe, from the heights of the Washington establishment to the depths of the grassroots, agrees that our presidential nominating process needs to be reformed. But while there is broad consensus that a problem exists, there are myriad diagnoses as to what actually needs fixing. As the parties begin internal and interparty discussions about what elements need tweaking, it‘s time to take a serious look at more extensive and comprehensive reforms that will truly fix the process. The parties should begin to debate a plan that includes traditional state-based nomination contests culminating in a final, decisive national primary." [Emphasis mine]
I really like this idea, but for a few things...

1) Coordinated action. This is another idea that will require coordinated effort from both national parties. I don't see this as the monumental roadblock that I once did. Folks from both sides seem to be mindful of the fact that now is the time to hammer something meaningful out on reform. Of course, one man’s meaningful is another man’s useless.

2) $$$$. The idea of moving congressional primaries to coincide with the national primary is ingenious. It is also imperative. Without that, states would be confronted with footing the bill for another (separate) election. I’m not sure, but I’m fairly certain that this current period is not the proper time to be pushing an additional election to be paid for with taxpayer money. Call it a hunch. The other side of this is that it probably wouldn’t just be congressional primaries moved but all primaries. And there may be some complications there because that would obviously include state legislative primaries (in most states). If any perceived negative impact surfaces there, state legislators — the folks primarily tasked with initiating these election date changes — may put their own self interests above the national party’s. Now, what could be seen as a negative impact to state legislators? First and foremost, the most problematic aspect is turnout. Some legislators might prefer lower turnout primary elections. Those conditions are to their advantage, after all.

3) Delegates/conventions. One major piece missing from this puzzle is the delegate calculation. What effect does the national primary have on the allocation of delegates? Are the state contests merely just the first round (beauty contests)? Does the national primary determine the allocation of all the delegates or just a certain percentage? And finally, what does this do to the convention? I suppose the same rules apply, but this national primary idea has an air of finality to it. "The delegates are allocated. Let the general election begin!" This last point is a minor issue. If this plan was instituted, the parties, I'm sure, would go on having their conventions as if nothing had happened. It isn't as if the conventions have been decisive of late (though they could have been in 2008 if Hillary Clinton had kept her campaign going throughout the summer).

4) Candidates. What does this plan do to candidate strategy? Would candidates drop out as they do in the currently configured system? Super Tuesday does have a way of winnowing the field down to (usually) one candidate. But I don't know. Candidates may opt to tough it out. After all, the candidate who places second at the end of all the primaries and caucuses moves on to the runoff national primary. Money would be the determining factor there, though. If you don't have any money you can't go on. What a national primary like this does accomplish, though, is basically a reset. Things kinda sorta go back to the way they were prior to the McGovern-Fraser reforms in one respect: there's a prize at the end of the calendar. Look at the allocation of Democratic delegates in 1976. The date on which the most delegates were at stake was the last one on the calendar. This proposed system, however, would have all of the delegates (it seems) at stake on the final date. In that regard, some of the same dynamics that prevailed in the earlier iterations of the McGovern-Fraser system would return in the revised system. Mainly, that would mean that, sure, candidates would drop out as they do now (when they aren't catching on), but it would also potentially mean that you would have candidates jumping in the contest midstream (depending on how frontloaded the calendar is -- If the calendar is like 2008, it wouldn't have made sense for, say, Jeb Bush to have jumped in after Super Tuesday's delegate giveaway. There likely wouldn't have been enough delegates left to counter McCain's lead after February 5.) as well. Essentially, then, this proposed system would offer two opportunities for buyers' remorse: once by giving a late-arriving candidate a chance to catch on and then again in the national primary when the second place finisher goes against the frontrunner (the winner of the most contests).

5) Turnout. One last hypothetical and I'll wrap this up. What if candidates continue to drop out of the race as they do now and the winner becomes a foregone conclusion? Not only that, but what if the party is satisfied with the "presumptive nominee"? Does the national primary, then, become something akin to the conventions now: a formality? If the national primary is a formality, then that is likely going to be a low turnout affair, which is something, I think, that would be against the wishes of those who have crafted the idea. Another argument along these same lines is that the national primary, in such a situation (low turnout), would become an election ripe for insurgency. Again, let's look at the 2008 Republican nomination contest. Let's assume that everything was the same about the contest, but that there was a national primary at the end. Why would Republicans go to the polls on the national primary day? The contest is over, right? Yes and no. Seemingly McCain has won, but technically, he hasn't. What if Ron Paul was able to quietly (or perhaps not so quietly) call on his supporters to turnout and vote? Would his loyal following amount to enough to overcome a low turnout in favor of McCain? Maybe, maybe not, but here's guessing that the GOP wouldn't even want to consider the possibility. [Of course, 2008 would have played out differently had there been a national primary at the end. Neither Huckabee nor Romney would have withdrawn from the race, I suspect.]

I don’t know that any of these things are deal breakers, but I do think they are factors that would have to be ironed out to some extent to avoid any unintended consequences. And despite the fact that I often come down hard on these reform plans, what I ultimately want to avoid are unintended consequences that make matters worse. But some might argue with me about the ways in which (or whether) things could get worse in the current presidential nomination system.

Hat tip to Matthew Shugart over at Fruits and Votes for the link.

Part Two of this series tomorrow will deal with another new and sweeping reform proposal. Stay tuned...

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