Public Comment

Commentary: The 2008 Presidential Primaries: Another Inconvenient Truth

By Thomas Gangale
Tuesday December 19, 2006

The 2006 elections are over, and the 2008 presidential race has begun. Most news coverage will focus on personalities, and once in a while on issues. What will go mostly unreported is the fact that we have a serious structural flaw in the presidential selection process that renders the issues and personalities almost superfluous. The “inconvenient truth” is that the primary/caucus system is an unfolding disaster, a bad process that produces presidential nominees who are less than America’s best. 

The problem is that every state wants to be first on the calendar. Being first means that all of the candidates desperately want to win your state to claim the mantle as the front runner. Being later in the season means being ignored by the candidates; by then, one of them has locked up the nomination, and the campaign is already over. 

Of course, as states shift their primaries and caucuses earlier in the calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire move their respective caucuses and primary forward to stay ahead of the pack. In 1972, New Hampshire held its primary on March 7. In 2004, the primary was held on Jan. 19. 

It’s going to get worse before it gets ... even worse. Earlier this year, when a bill was introduced in the California legislature to move its presidential primary ahead of all other states, to as early as Jan. 2 if necessary, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner threatened to thrust his state’s primary into December. The best idea the Democratic Party can come up with to fix the problem only adds to it. In 2008, it is allowing Nevada’s caucuses and South Carolina’s primary to move near the front of the calendar. 

So what? Why should you care when presidential primaries occur, or when the parties’ nominees are determined? 

In 1976, there were four months of competitive campaigning. The delegates from every state had to be selected before it was determined that Gerald Ford had survived Ronald Reagan’s challenge. In 2004, when Dean suspended his campaign, only about one-fifth of the delegates had been selected from a handful of states. To 80 percent of the country, the Kerry nomination was a fait accompli. That’s not democracy. 

A shorter campaign season also means that any grassroots campaign operating on a shoestring budget is doomed from the start. There is no chance to score a few early victories in small states where campaigning is inexpensive, leverage these to bring in more media attention and more campaign contributions, and thereby grow the campaign to be competitive in the later, larger, mass-media markets. The real campaign is not about courting votes, it’s about counting cash. A Republican National Committee report lamented in May 2000, “It is an indisputable fact that in every nomination campaign since 1980, in both parties, the eventual party nominee was the candidate who had raised the most money by Dec. 31 of the year before the general election.” The early primaries dutifully rubber-stamp the decision of the donors. That’s not democracy. 

So, about a year from now, on Dec. 31, 2007, the presidential nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties will be determined. Just count the money, then indulge in New Year’s revelry as you may. The primaries and caucuses that follow will be an empty sham. 

The curious thing is that so few have noticed that the real decision has been taken out of the hands of the voters. If, in one quadrennial cycle, had gone from the campaign calendar of 1972 to that of 2004, we would, as Al Gore’s frog, have immediately jumped out of the boiling pot. However, we have sat in that pot for thirty years without noticing that our democracy was slowly being cooked.  


Thomas Gangale is an aerospace engineer and a former Air Force officer. He is currently the executive director at OPS-Alaska, a think tank based in Petaluma, where he manages projects in political science and international relations.