December 2007 Issue
by James H. Ewert Jr.
To the casual observer, watching the 2008 presidential primary season unfold on cable news has been about as interesting as watching your dog take a shit in the snow. It offers that obscene type of material that is too horrendous to admit to liking, but too graphic to completely turn away from. It’s that type of indifferent hollow gaze that the curious onlooker seems to be placing upon the 2008 presidential primary season, which kicks off on Jan. 3 in Iowa.
Each state holds its own primary in which voters choose one candidate from each party. The value in winning states with early primaries such as Iowa and New Hampshire is that the winner gains momentum and monopolizes the horse-race media coverage so that voters in other states whose primaries follow Iowa and New Hampshire are more inclined to vote for the winner of those early contests. While this system has always placed far too much influence in the hands of the two small, predominately white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, this year the process has been thrown further into chaos as other states have moved up their primaries in an attempt to gain as much attention and influence as Iowa and New Hampshire.
Earlier this year, nearly two dozen states including Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, and Illinois, among others, decided that Iowa and New Hampshire — the two states that have traditionally held the first two presidential primaries — shouldn’t get the undue influence and attention they regularly do during presidential election cycles. Some of the states decided to supersede Iowa and New Hampshire all together by drafting legislation to hold their primary or caucus at far earlier dates than usual. This of course sent Iowa and New Hampshire to move their primaries up even further to maintain their special role as kingmakers. As punishment, Democrats decided to strip delegates from any state that moved up its primary to a date before Feb. 5 — the traditional start to the primary season for all states besides New Hampshire or Iowa — yet many states still decided to move up their primaries regardless, with the rest deciding to hold their primaries on Feb. 5. The end result is an election in which the two frontrunners will likely be declared on or before Feb. 5, a full nine months before the general election with only a handful of states having played a key role in the selection of the two main candidates who will be running for president of the United States.
So far this year, politicians have looked less like legitimate candidates vying for their party’s nomination and more like a gang of angry, drunken prostitutes brawling in an empty street over who will go first in servicing the top trick, one who comes early, often and never asks questions. This trick could also be known as New Hampshire or in some circles, Iowa. The pimps, the Democratic and Republican Party leaders, well, they’ve just decided to sit back and watch the grisly horror of the moment.
Someone new to this process might wonder why New Hampshire and Iowa are first to begin with. Well, books can be written on that answer and even with books written on the subject, the answer is still fairly unknown. For the short answer, however, we must go back to 1968 for Chicago’s very own and infamous Democratic National Convention. No one really knew what candidate would be nominated when party delegates convened on this fair city in August 1968. After front-runner Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was assassinated, the party went into a tailspin and the divisiveness of the Vietnam War split the party between anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who would continue involvement in the war along the same lines as Lyndon Johnson. At this point in time, state party delegates held tight control over the nominating process and often handpicked the candidate instead of letting voters decide. Thus was the case when Hubert Humphrey was elected the Democratic nominee for president despite him not attending a single primary election that year.
Following the 1968 Democratic Convention fracas, Democratic Party leaders set out to reform the system in order to prevent future confrontations like the one in 1968 and place the decision in the voters’ hands rather than party elite. Ironically, what was settled on frontloaded the primary system in two states and proved the exact opposite of what was intended. Instead of opening up the contest to bring more minorities into the process, two of the whitest states in the country were selected to have the bulk of the influence in nominating candidates the rest of the country would have to rally behind. What makes matters worse this year is that the avalanche of earlier primary dates will only hurt voters more. Most schools are out of session in early and mid-January and thus the student population will be virtually nonexistent when the time comes to choose candidates, only further reducing young people’s role in politics.
In recent years people have begun to notice this massive disenfranchisement of voters and have set to change it. One of the most widely supported reforms is the rotating regional primary, which would partition states into four groups: the West, Midwest, South and Northeast. Each region would set a separate primary date and the order would rotate each election cycle. Critics claim that this system will greatly reduce the role of states in the last region to have a primary. Those concerns, though, are mitigated by the fact that states will only have their roles reduced once every 16 years, not every year, as is the case with our current system.
The entire point of state primaries is to allow for as many candidates as possible to run without the necessity of national prominence or wealth. If the United States were to have a national primary that would require candidates to campaign in all 50 states at once, it would effectively rule out any chance for candidates with limited funds and resources. By focusing the country on selected states or regions for the primary, lower-tiered candidates have a greater chance to win and gain national attention.
Perhaps the worst part of all is that this ordeal is nowhere near over. Following the primaries, there are sure to be lawsuits, which will only exacerbate and distract people from the real problem: Democratic and Republican Party leaders who have a monopoly over any and all things politics and money, and who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Until this fundamental problem is resolved, fixing the primary system will be like placing gauze on a shotgun wound.
CI Political File #002