Democrats Debate Changes to Primary System After Divisive 2008 Season

Some call for reform, but others say the Democratic primaries were wildly successful.

Voters across the country waited in line to participate in Democratic primaries.
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It started too early and, some have argued, went on too long. And though the dust has barely settled on the Democrats' roller coaster presidential primary season, party leaders are being bombarded with advice on how to fix a system that ended with dissension and lingering bitterness.

Get rid of those once-obscure superdelegates. Chuck the caucuses and make primaries winner take all. Start contests later, and spread them out—no more Super Duper Tuesdays. And strip Iowa and New Hampshire of what Michigan Sen. Carl Levin calls their "hammerlock" on the leadoff contests. "You just can't perpetuate a privilege like that, not when you're the antiprivilege party," says Levin, a dogged opponent of the two states' me-first positions.

But to advocate a fix is to suggest something is broken. Which begs the question: How could a system be characterized as defective when it produced nominee Barack Obama, just the type of candidate Democratic Party rules have been written to benefit? "This year, the Democrats' system did what it was supposed to—it allowed an insurgent candidate with grassroots appeal and organization to defeat the party insider," says Christopher Hull, whose recent book Grassroots Rules explores Iowa's role in picking presidents.

Even change agitators grant Hull, a Republican strategist, his thesis. But this year was an anomaly, says Robert Loevy, a Colorado College political scientist. "I want every race to be like the one this year," Loevy says. "But I have no hopes that would occur." He advocates a small-states-first primary calendar that would compel Iowa and New Hampshire to vote in order based on population and favors dumping caucuses for primaries.

Gaining ground. But Obama benefited from his grass-roots success in the Iowa caucuses. And his campaign made full strategic use of the party's practice of awarding delegates based on the percentage of votes received in each state primary. Hillary Clinton's supporters criticized the rule when she failed to gain much ground on Obama even as she began winning big states. Proportional distribution, Hull says, may be "a terrible idea—it's what causes weak governments in Europe—but it's also fair." And that's consistent, he says, "for a party committed to the rights of the underdog." Party Chairman Howard Dean likes it fine—there's no movement to adopt the GOP practice of winner take all, he says.

Nor is there any will to do away with another unique Democratic creature, the superdelegate—the 800-plus elected officials and party leaders who get a vote at the party convention. Their numbers may be reduced, predicts Carol Fowler of the party's rules and bylaws committee, but, bottom line, "we keep superdelegates." New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Ray Buckley argues that giving party heavy hitters a free pass is a good thing—then they won't compete with "regular folks" for a seat at the convention. Count some regular folks skeptical.

Legislation is pending in the House and Senate that would strip Iowa and New Hampshire of their first-in-the-nation status and move both parties to a rotating system of regional primaries. But even Levin, a Senate cosponsor, concedes that success is unlikely and that in four years, state parties will still control their primary schedules. A similar bill, endorsed by the National Association of Secretaries of State, also proposes regional primaries but would keep the early state privilege.

Who's on first? Both sides agree the primary season started too early. Officials have advocated a calendar that would start no earlier than February. Iowa pushed up its caucuses this year to January 3 after Michigan and Florida muscled into the early window and scheduled their contests sooner than party rules allowed. Both parties stripped the states of convention delegates; the Democrats eventually agreed to seat the delegates with a half vote each. Levin called the fight a success. The two states took a tough stand, he says, and he predicts delegates will ultimately be given full votes at the convention.