Fighting Over the Plum Dates

Bedlam still reigns on the primary calendar

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How chaotic is the country's presidential primary system? Consider a few recent headlines: The Democratic National Committee stripped Florida of its delegates because the state moved its primary to late January. A Florida legislator then called Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada, and New Hampshire "terrorist rogue states" for coercing candidates not to campaign in his state. Last week, two Florida lawmakers sued the DNC. Meanwhile, the Granite State—the self-appointed marshal of the primary parade—has yet to announce when its vote will actually take place. And the date of Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus is set for January 14, but many experts believe it may yet move forward.

Meanwhile, calls for reform are growing louder. Congress is examining the situation, and the National Association of Secretaries of State, the official calendar keeper, has called an urgent meeting on presidential primaries next month.

Painful. No one expects a quick or painless fix. The national parties say they are the arbiters of primary dates, but many states have nonetheless moved their primaries up to increase their influence on the nominating process. Some 20 states are scheduled to vote on February 5, and that Super Tuesday could essentially decide the nominees. To counter that trend, the NASS has proposed a plan that would preserve the unique early positions of Iowa and New Hampshire but then augment those contests with regional primaries; a different region would go first each election cycle. A national primary day has also been discussed.

But nearly all the reforms call for some national control over state party fiefdoms. "It is past time for the necessary political institutions called parties to be governed by some sort of federal intelligent design," writes political scientist Larry Sabato in his new book, A More Perfect Constitution. Sounds good. But the current bickering indicates that standardizing the process won't happen fast. So the primary dates this time around are anybody's guess.