Monday, January 07, 2008

The Primaries- Like the Electoral College All Over Again ?

Well, it has always threatened to be a political blog, hasn't it ?

When I was a little kid, I actually thought the Electoral College was a good idea, and also oh so American. Yes, a little quirky. That's a good thing right ? Quirky. Unique. I actually thought it meant that any state could grow up to be important to the electoral process. Hawaii's 4 votes ? Could decide the election, right ? The swing state.

Of course, I was eight. I also, rather embarrassing using my Light Brite to spell out 'Yeah, Nixon' back in 1973.

By the time I'd hit high school I came to understand how the electoral college really worked. Little states with a few electoral votes ? Who needs you, Vermont ? I think that Dewey was the last president to make a campaign visit there which lasted more than about two hours, and that was because his train had broken down in Poultney during a blizzard. Of course, I lived in New York State at the time, which back then was the holder of 36 glorious electoral votes- 5 more than today- damn you, US Census ! so it wasn't such a big deal that we were 12 Vermonts.

It was also obvious by the time I'd hit my late teens that the only thing the electoral college was good for was sending a candidate who lost the popular vote to the White House. And wow, would that come back to affect the nation in spades.

I have to admit to feeling the same way about our crazy primary system, right up until the other day. Over the last year I've listened to a lot of complaining from states that felt disenfranchised by our primary system about how unfair it was and I'm really embarrassed to say that I had the same reaction to it I had as a young child to the electoral college. So what ? It's cute. Let Iowa and New Hampshire have their little moment in the sun.

The idea of dividing the nation into four geographic regions and letting each one take turns going first ? Sounds OK, but do we really need to change the primary system ? Can't anyone win by winning enough big states ?

Well, there's two problems with this thinking. One is that letting Iowa and New Hampshire go first allows two of the most non-representative states in the Union speak first and speak disproportionally loudly and second, because the press spends so much time talking about who can and can't win the election and so little time actually talking about the candidates that one single caucus (and let's not even talk about how skewed and unfair the entire caucus process in Iowa is) can dictate not what has happened, but who people should vote for. People want to vote for a winner after all, and if the press is going to paint one candidate or another as having unstoppable moment after winning one tiny non-representative caucus where the total number of votes are literally in the thousands...

Then again, the press will turn (a la Howard Dean), so maybe a few early wins can be the worst thing that happens to you. Either way, having early results in small states actually determine who stays and who leaves the process is just not the right way to get the best candidates. Listening to candidates contort their messages to win votes in Iowa ? Disturbing.

Who wins Iowa, or in fact who wins Iowa and New Hampshire, should mean about as much as two states' 11 electoral votes mean in the general election. Since the press isn't likely to stop the hyperbolic coverage of who can win long enough to really present the candidates in a thoughtful and informative way, it's time- long past time- to scrap the crazy primary system we have and go to a format which makes all the states equally important, that shortens the primary season so that donors are giving less to primary fights and more to the general election campaigns, and that quite frankly, reduces the cynicism the current system generates.

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