Ugly Infighting Yields a Breakneck Primary Schedule

It's too late to stop the craziness for this season. But what about 2012?

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From the days of party bosses and backroom deals, the path to the White House has never been pretty—or particularly fair.

But the chaos reigning in the march to choose 2008 presidential nominees has many looking back with nostalgia. This season, the race for influence, attention, and the infusion of campaign money into local economies has devolved into an ugly power struggle between national and state party bosses. Five states have defied their national party rules by scheduling contests in January. More than 20 have moved up their votes to the first week in February. And bickering continues over whether New Hampshire and Iowa should retain protected pole positions in the quadrennial contests.

The result? A breakneck schedule that could begin as early as mid-December and coronate major party nominees less than two months later. Recently, the Republican National Committee followed the Democrats' lead and threatened to strip convention delegates from states that scheduled contests before the February 5 deadline imposed by the parties. But the states have simply shrugged. Says GOP consultant Paul Wilson: "When that woman with the funny hat with all the buttons shows up at the convention, it will be pretty hard for the parties to say, 'Hey, you don't get to vote.' "

At the heart of the struggle is "New Hampshire envy" over the outsize influence wielded and financial windfall collected (an estimated $200 million in 2000) by the small northeastern state where, by law, the secretary of state has the power to keep the primary first in the nation. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin last month called the arrangement "cockamamie" and threatened to get caucuses in his state scheduled on the same day as the Granite State primary. New Hampshire has hinted it would vote as early as December 11 to stay first and has delayed scheduling its primary until Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who supports a January 15 contest in her state, formally commits.

Richard Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in California, uses the classic metaphor "a tragedy of commons" to characterize how the unregulated grab for an early date has ended up devaluing the prize. But proposed remedies, from staggered regional primaries to a one-day national primary, have proved just as contentious.

"The million-dollar question is how to stop the craziness," says Kathy Sullivan, a Manchester, N.H., lawyer who until recently chaired that state's Democratic Party.

It's too late to tinker with the primary system this year, but could changes be made before 2012? Proposals out there range from scheduling a series of primaries in randomly selected states, starting with the smallest, to using a lottery to set four regional primaries. Congress is considering legislation that mirrors a plan long promoted by the National Association of Secretaries of State and sets a series of four regional primary and caucus dates, which would rotate every four years. Critics say the plan would discriminate against candidates expected to do well in regions that go last, and also is unpalatable because it preserves the controversial status of New Hampshire and Iowa. And does Congress have the constitutional right to impose primary schedules on the states? The parties say no, invoking states' rights, but Hasen has argued that Congress can impose national solutions to presidential election issues, as it did when it changed the voting age to 18. But history doesn't bode well for the measure: Hundreds of primary reform proposals have been buried on Capitol Hill.

Elections expert Tova Andrea Wang predicts that, for political reasons, any proposal considered will keep Iowa and New Hampshire first. But she is optimistic that a national effort could result in a better scheme — "especially for voters, who seem to get lost in all of this."