A Broken Primary

Guest Commentary: Pat Williams

It is the summer of 2007, almost four decades since the onset of the well-meaning but, as it turns out, wrong-headed political reforms that have made a mess of our presidential nominating system. The public’s passion for reform was fanned throughout the 1960s and ‘70s by Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, Nixon, and civil disturbances. The eruption of reform included changing the system of how we nominate our presidential candidates. Then and along the way since, those election reforms have backfired.

The legacy of 40 years of mistakes is on public display in Iowa. Recently a relative few residents of the Hawkeye state engaged in a nonsensical, non-binding, advisory Republican straw poll. With the nation’s general election still more than a year away, three of the Republican frontrunners wisely refused to participate in Iowa’s straw poll. John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani, and Fred Thompson opted out. Their absence gave Mitt Romney the opportunity for a first-place finish, and he capitalized on it, spending many hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to convince a relative handful of Iowans to vote for him in that non-binding exercise in election “early gotcha.”

Only a scant 14,000 people voted in that straw poll and yet the Iowa results made national news. Let’s think about that. Why, Ravalli County in southwestern Montana has about that many votes in most elections. No one can truly believe that people of one relatively lightly populated county in Montana or any other state should have such disproportionate influence on the nation’s presidential choice but our national primary election system encourages exactly that.

A good early showing, as in Iowa, artificially accelerates a candidate, allowing him or her to quickly become the leader of the pack, raise the campaign money, dominate the headlines and almost regardless of presidential qualifications, lock up the party nomination long before most Americans have given adequate attention to the candidates. In 1999, George W. Bush won this non-binding Iowa straw poll by capturing 40 percent of the votes, and he was on his way to the Republican nomination.

The rush for each state to hold its own presidential primary is understandable. I’ve engaged in it myself. But the result has only prompted ever earlier primaries. Here in the Rocky Mountain West four states hold presidential primaries with the earliest, Arizona and Colorado, having moved up on the calendar to Feb. 5. Iowa’s law requires that state to hold the nation’s first primary. Thus, when South Carolina recently moved its 2008 primary date to Jan. 19, Iowa responded by moving its date to Jan. 14. New Hampshire considered moving its primary to Jan. 12, which may very well result in Iowa moving its primary to December.

That scenario could mean that a handful of Americans in one-tenth or less of the states will select our presidential nominees by mid-January with the winning nominees facing the daunting and incredibly expensive task of a 10-month presidential general election campaign.

Is there an answer to this current mess? Perhaps nostalgia is clouding my view but the expense, chaos, and limiting nature of the current nominating system makes one yearn for some form of that early system in which robust, decentralized, locally rooted political parties had significant nominating influence through their local caucuses and respective national conventions. Relying on the lessons of the value of political party activism along with the reconciliation of open primaries, we should develop better ways to nominate the candidates for the world’s premier political office. Perhaps we should consider an amalgam of regional or perhaps a national primary along with the votes of local political party delegates in nominating our presidential candidates.

The past 40 years have demonstrated that abandoning the once traditional ritual of grassroots party consideration and its peer review of candidates in favor of name I.D., dollars by the millions, and the “eyewash” of 30-second TV commercials has not resulted in the nomination of better presidential candidates. In fact, the case might be made that the reverse has happened.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

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