March 29, 1996 in City

Rotating Primaries Would Make It Fair

William Safire New York Times
 

Those of us present at the creation of the modern political primary in 1952 remember the thrills of New Hampshire campaigning:

Gov. Sherman Adams drove the lead car in the motorcade himself, careening down the icy road from Concord at 70 mph, terrifying the scheduler (me) and the “Oklahoma!” star Ann Crowley, who roused rallies with Irving Berlin’s “I Like Ike.” In the bus behind was Fred Waring’s glee club, which would swell patriotic hearts with “Where oh where but in America can you sing true Freedom’s song?”

But now the thrill is gone. The 1996 New Hampshire primary was a parody of participatory democracy, the last hurrah of a tradition corrupted by local hubris and overwhelmed by media hype.

Not because Pat Buchanan won. The Granite State’s bellwether status had long ago been lost. What ended New Hampshire’s stranglehold on Opening Day was the transparent phoniness of it all - of candidates unable to climb over cameramen to touch a voter.

The last straw was the way Republican state party officials took umbrage at the temerity of Delaware to schedule its primary only four days after the New Hampshire kickoff. Delaware Republicans were chided for this encroachment; New Hampshire’s governor, Steve Merrill (Bob Dole’s chairman there, and a good guy), asked all candidates to boycott the Delaware primary, lest - in his words - “New Hampshire voters perceive it as undermining our state’s first-primary status.”

All top contenders obeyed save Steve Forbes, who - with little New Hampshire support to lose - bought TV time and picked up Delaware’s delegates. That uncontested victory gave him a boost a few days later in Arizona and nearly derailed Dole - all thanks to the overreaching of me-first New Hampshire.

No state party should be able to jerk around national candidates that way. When Haley Barbour, GOP national chairman, appointed an eight-person committee to make more rational and representative the system of primaries and caucuses, New Hampshire’s attempt to get a place on that committee was rebuffed.

Jim Nicholson, the Colorado lawyer and home builder who heads the GOP’s rules committee, was named chairman. He will hold an organizational teleconference on April 8 and convene the special committee 10 days later; it will hold hearings and make its recommendation about changing the system to the party’s National Convention in San Diego in August. While the Platform Committee makes headlines, that committee on primaries and caucuses will make real waves.

Not wanting to offend New Hampshire, Nicholson speaks of his group facilitating nationwide changes. “This year was so front-loaded,” says this early Gramm supporter, “that you had to have a tremendous organization or a big war chest in order to have a shot at the nomination. Ordinarily the national party would be lah-zay faire, but it was the individual states’ competitiveness that caused the compaction.”

The purpose of a new primary system should be to enable party members in all states to examine all the candidates, and - just as important - give candidates opportunity to learn what concerns local voters.

To achieve this in a way that’s fair to each state’s voters and least expensive for candidates, both major parties need to organize the space and string out the time.

That means 8 or 10 regional primaries held during a span of about three months, preferably April through June. By clustering the states, we make possible travel schedules that are cheaper and less exhausting; by letting the campaign run a few months, we avoid frenetic “compaction” and let voters and media teach candidates to be president.

But what states will be first? Answer: Rotate the timing of the regional primaries. In opening deference to the New Hampshire “tradition,” in 2000 let the New England region be first; when John McCain runs in 2004, let the Southwestern region open.

This imposes a national party discipline on the current state scramble. How un-Republican. But in my mind’s ear, I can hear the strains of authentic primary campaigning again: “Where oh where but in America can you sing true Freedom’s song?”

xxxx


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email