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Steven Hill: A Better Way to Conduct Presidential Primaries

Rather than the current free-for-all, why not try a systematic national plan for clustered voting?

In the aftermath of the topsy-turvy presidential campaign results from Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month, many Americans have begun to question the nominating process itself. Are two tiny rural states really the place to kick off an all-important national selection process?{mosimage}

According to a survey conducted for The Associated Press and Yahoo News, fewer than one in five voters favor Iowa and New Hampshire’s "favored-state" status, and nearly 80 percent would rather see other states get their chance at the front of the line.

Officials in those other states, meawhile, fear that if they hold their presidential primaries too late in the season, the nominations will already have been decided and that they will become irrelevant. That has led states to leapfrog each other to go first, pushing the start date ever closer to New Year’s Day.

The result: a colossal spasm of absurdity known as Super Duper Tuesday. On Feb. 5, California and 23 other states are scheduled to hold their primaries or caucuses on a single day. Together these two dozen states hold enough delegates to nearly decide the presidential nominations all by themselves.

Having a single primary day with so many states should be called Super Stupid Tuesday, because it gives great advantage to those candidates with the most campaign cash and name recognition to compete in so many states simultaneously. It creates a virtual wealth primary in which new presidential faces will be quickly eliminated.

In addition, states with primaries after Feb. 5 — including Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and others — may find that the nominations are already over before they even have a chance to vote. Even if they aren’t, the mere possibility that they could be will lead some of those states to leapfrog in the 2012 presidential election, continuing the anarchy.

The current system is utterly broken, and more and more people realize it. Fortunately, there is a better way that would allow the maximum number of states — little states, big states and medium-sized states — to be relevant to the presidential nomination process.

A national plan would establish a total of four primary days, each held a month apart. The states would be grouped into four clusters, by population. The smallest 12 states, plus federal territories and Washington, D.C., would vote first, followed by the next smallest 13 states, then the 13 medium-sized states, and finally the 12 largest states. These four primaries would begin in March and end in June.

This national plan has a number of advantages over the current free-for-all. First, by starting with small states and moving on to ever larger ones, it gives all states an influential role and allows more voters an effective voice. The big states would vote last, but since they hold the most delegates the nominations wouldn’t be decided until the final day.

Second, it accomplishes the recommendation of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that the nominating process should "remain competitive for a longer period of time in order to give the public a greater opportunity to engage the campaign and to become informed about the candidates." It also creates a shorter interval between the primary season and the nominating conventions in the summer, helping to sustain the public’s level of engagement.

Finally, a national plan preserves door-to-door "retail politicking" in small states early in the season, and gives lesser-known or under-funded candidates a chance to catch fire. Party members would have more time to consider whether early front-runners best represent their party’s chances of winning, and late-blooming candidates would have a chance to bounce back from early defeats.

In 2000, the Republican National Committee nearly adopted just such a plan. It’s a pity it didn’t, since it would have led us out of the current morass. Both major parties are planning to review their party’s nomination procedures, and they should put in place a nationally coordinated presidential primary plan by 2012. The nomination of our nation’s chief executive is too important to leave to such a chaotic, state-by-state process.

Steven Hill is director of the political reform program of the New America Foundation and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.

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