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Archive for Monday, December 19, 2005

Bipartisan effort may fix primary system

December 19, 2005

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Headlines from the latest Democratic Party commission focused on the fact that foes failed to kill the traditional role of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in picking presidential nominees.

But the real news may have been the launching of what could become a serious bipartisan effort to fix the system's two worst problems: the front-loading that denies most voters a meaningful role and the rush toward holding ever earlier primaries or caucuses.

If the Republicans agree, and there are signs that may be possible, both parties could pick nominees in 2012 on a schedule that starts later and lasts longer than the quickie contests in January and February created by the various "reforms" of recent years.

Major changes could come as early as 2008 if the Democratic National Committee adopts a "bonus" plan to give states, including California and Texas, up to 40 percent more delegates if they delay primaries from early March to May or June. That might cut the impact of Iowa and New Hampshire, even if they still vote first.

That's because any system that delays the election of a large number of delegates could encourage candidates who failed to win Iowa and New Hampshire to stay in the race, if they have enough money.

That happened in 1976 when Ronald Reagan rebounded from early losses and nearly defeated President Gerald Ford and in 1992 when Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination despite losing both Iowa and New Hampshire.

It would have been impossible in 2004, when 71.4 percent of delegates were picked by early March, far more than in 1992.

These issues emerged from a panel created to study the impact of the timing of primaries and caucuses on the nominating system and recommend changes. Another party committee and the full Democratic National Committee must approve the recommendations, which is likely.

Under the plan, one or two states could hold caucuses between Iowa and New Hampshire, probably smaller ones in the South or West with large minority populations. One or two others could hold primaries after New Hampshire, before the formal start of the primary season on Feb. 5, 2008.

New Hampshire Democrats charge the plan would diminish the state's "unscripted, face-to-face grass-roots campaigning."

But if panels making the final decisions follow the plan's intent, and allow one or two small states such as Nevada, Wyoming or Arkansas to hold early caucuses, Iowa and New Hampshire would likely keep their role as the key places that vet the candidates and allow dark horses to emerge.

The bigger problem is that the proposed 2008 calendar wouldn't prevent a repetition of what happened in 2004, when so many states held contests a week after New Hampshire that they virtually decided the nomination. That's why the proposal to stretch and delay the calendar is so important.

A bonus system could have some impact. Republicans tried it in 2000 but didn't give enough extra delegates to tempt states to delay their primaries or caucuses. But a 40 percent bonus could have a big impact if large states signed on. California already plans to move its primary from March to June in 2008, but any change in Texas would require approval of the GOP-controlled Legislature.

An even bigger change would stem from the proposal to delay the start of the entire process by two months - to March. That would require Republican concurrence, and it's complicated by the fact that GOP rules for 2008 have already been set.

Still, a joint effort to reform the system nearly happened in 2000, and some officials think it could occur in time for the 2008 Republican National Convention to put it into effect for 2012.

David Norcross, who heads the GOP's rules committee, agrees the system is getting too front-loaded but conceded, "I really don't know how to fix it." He said an initial sounding showed little sentiment on his panel to get into the issue but added that it doesn't need to be addressed immediately.

Tom Sansonetti, a former GOP rules chairman who led the 2000 effort, said changes to spread out the process are "necessary" and added he hopes to persuade Norcross to address the issue.

He also said he thinks that, if more states move their primaries or caucuses into February, that will boomerang and increase interest in reform.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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