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Monday, June 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Ideas to rearrange primary system have little shelf life

OLYMPIA – Every four years about this time, folks come up with better ways to pick the people who will be the major parties’ nominee for president in the fall.

The weakness of the current system makes this as predictable as some unknown college knocking off a heavily favored university at some point in the NCAA basketball tournament. But the politics and inertia that underlie the system mean those plans likely will generate a few days of commentary, then be forgotten.

Among the litany of sins tallied for the current mad dash of candidates is the unfairness to states other than Iowa and New Hampshire, which see the most candidates for the most amount of time. People who want to spread this “wealth” to other states or regions rarely mention the downside of being in Des Moines or Manchester at the beginning of a year divisible by four: hordes of journalists asking the citizens silly questions, never-ending phone calls from pollsters and the airwaves so full of political commercials one might welcome ads with beer guzzlers chanting “PuppyMonkeyBaby.”

This is not to say there aren’t some good ideas to improve the chaotic caucus and primary schedule. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman is the latest official with a one such suggestion, a Pac-12 primary that would feature enough contests on the same day in March to give Western states some of the clout southern states achieved with Super Tuesday, which was colloquially named the SEC primary.

Under Wyman’s plan, Washington would join Oregon, California, Idaho, Arizona and maybe some other Western states. As it is, those states have nominating events stretching from late February to early June, so consolidating them would theoretically make the states a bigger draw.

It’s a reasonable plan, and  she intends to broach the subject at the annual gathering of secretaries of state this summer. It’s not the first proposal to join Western states into some loose confederacy of contests to lure presidential candidates and get them to discuss regional issues like foreign trade, federal land policies and vats of nasty nuclear stuff at Hanford. Former Sen. Slade Gorton once talked about a series of regional primaries, which would rotate their order each presidential election cycle, so no region would always be first or last. There are versions of that floating around, now, too.

With all due deference to Wyman, her idea is unlikely to be the last such proposal, either.

The problem is, by summer most of the helium will have leaked out of trial balloons to change the recently completed primary and caucus system. While some will be unhappy with local results, most will be happy it’s over.

Picking states for a perfect primary union can be difficult. Washington, Oregon and Idaho might be wary of having a primary on the same day as California, which by itself has more voters than those three states combined. The candidates might spend a few hours in the Northwest and days in the San Francisco to San Diego corridor.

Another wrinkle this year is that Washington can hardly feel ignored by potential nominees. Bernie Sanders was in the state so many times in the last week he might’ve learned to pronounce Puyallup and Sequim. Hillary Clinton’s entire family stopped by at various times and places. If the Republican nomination is still up for grabs in May, as some pundits insist it will be, you can bet Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich will come looking for votes. As long as the race hasn’t been decided, candidates will come. State Republican officials might even stop whining about how Democrats wouldn’t let them change the date to sometime in March. What seemed like terrible timing last fall could be a very smart scheduling.

If that’s the case, it’s pretty hard to enlist other Western states for an earlier date in hopes of getting more bozos – let’s face it, the selection of candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire had quantity but not quality – to pop by.

A more fruitful effort for Wyman, as the state’s top ranking Republican, might be to enlist Gov. Jay Inslee, the top Democrat, in an effort to bring their party leaders together to negotiate a single nominating system, held on the same day. As it is, the Republicans had caucuses in February with no delegate selection and will use the May primary for all delegates, while Democrats had caucuses on Saturday to begin selection of all pledged delegates, and will ignore the May primary. 

Some find it confusing, others just plain crazy. But it’s likely to continue until the two parties stop sniping at each other about who is best serving the interests of the voters and taxpayers. And before Wyman can reasonably rep a Pac-12 primary, she’s going to have to have a state with just one contest.

In the meantime, the energy currently being put into improving the primary system is likely to be diverted into that other source of quadrennial griping, the Electoral College. We can expect to see all kinds of ideas on making the EC more small “d” democratic in a month or two.

They’re not likely to get anywhere, either.




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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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