Since Aug. 30, when Michigan moved its primary election up to Jan. 15, the news has played out like an elementary school playground fight. Michigan cut to the front of the line. Iowa and New Hampshire whined like babies, and the big, bad national party committees stepped in to slap Michigan on the wrist. But instead of punishing Michigan for legitimately challenging the unfair tradition of letting Iowa and New Hampshire go first, state and national party leaders should be focusing on fixing the system for future elections.
Traditionally, Iowa hosts the first caucus of the election season, and New Hampshire hosts the first primary. Although these states are hardly representative of the demographics of the rest of the country and count for almost nothing in the general election, the candidates who win those early contests usually establish the momentum to make the later primaries a formality. These states have enjoyed this kingmaker position in every election for several decades.
Our own state, along with Florida, decided that it was time for a change. Michigan moved its primary to Jan. 15 to become the first primary and Florida leapt up to Jan. 29 to become a potential number two. Iowa and New Hampshire, of course, couldn’t stand for that: Iowa moved its caucus to Jan. 3, and New Hampshire, which is obligated by its state constitution to have the first primary, is likely to move up to Jan. 8.
Technically all of this frontloading has violated the national parties’ rules, which in the case of the Democratic National Committee stipulate that only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada can have their nominating contest before Feb. 5. Protected by the DNC, New Hampshire is allowed to jockey for the front spot, but Michigan faces numerous penalties from national party committees. The state could lose all its delegates at the Democratic National Convention and half of its delegates at the Republican National Convention. Additionally, all of the major Democratic candidates are promising not to campaign in Michigan. Of these candidates, only Hillary Clinton will appear on the ballot.
The Detroit News reported earlier this week that DNC Chairman Howard Dean is trying to achieve a compromise between national and state officials in his party. But even those efforts ignore the larger problem: The selection of our presidential candidates has unfairly been kept in Iowa and New Hampshire’s selfish hands for too long. It is time they learned to share.
This primary season has featured all the chaos of the watershed 1968 Democratic primary cycle. Outrage at Hubert Humphrey’s nomination that year brought about the McGovern-Fraser Commission and major changes in the DNC. The mayhem of the 2008 primary season – which started too early, has been too expensive and is riddled with inconsistencies – must bring about equally large reforms.
There are many alternatives to the current method. A rotating regional primary, where blocs of states from different parts of the country take turns going first in primary season, would be one option. Or a national lottery system could be instituted that randomly decides the primary dates, giving each state an equal opportunity to have the first spot.
In the spirit of meaningful changes, the parties may want to question why we even have primary elections at all. Primaries are expensive, they turn elections into continuous campaigns, and most important, they could be replaced with a national runoff election that would allow all of the candidates to run in one general election.
Regardless of what alternative is selected, it couldn’t be worse than the system that we have been putting up with year after year. Michigan has done a brave thing by pushing for the opportunity to occasionally be the primary focus in the primaries.