Heavy hand harming presidential primaries

Central planning doomed the Soviet Union, and it appears to be doing the same thing for our presidential primary process. If the conventions actually matter next summer, the heavy hand of the national political parties could produce chaos.

The Democratic and Republican national committees’ efforts to control the schedule makes clear that the way we have picked the parties’ presidential candidates in recent decades is on life support.

The only power the national parties have in the process is to decide who can attend their conventions. State lawmakers get to say when and how the delegates to these gatherings are picked.

For years, the national political parties dictated which states would vote when, and they counted on state lawmakers not calling their bluff.

But this year, lawmakers and governors have balked at the D.C. folks protecting Iowa and New Hampshire’s privileged position in picking presidential nominees.

Reform on the way

Michigan and Florida set their primary dates when they wanted, despite warnings from the folks in Washington that their delegates would be vaporized. Other states decided to follow suit. This has led to the possibility that the 2008 election might actually begin in December 2007 in New Hampshire, which sees its first-in-the-nation status as a birthright.

Even if the “Live Free or Die” folks decide that early January will be acceptable, the entire mess can only lead to serious reform of the process for 2012. Iowa’s caucus is now scheduled for the first week in January, and New Hampshire has yet to decide but is seriously considering holding its primary in December 2007.

And if either major party’s nominations are in doubt come convention time, then how the votes from the states being penalized are treated could make the conventions must-see TV for the first time in more than a generation.

Imagine the chaos if unseated delegates were to hold the key to which candidate had the convention majority needed for a presidential nomination. The RNC is threatening to strip half the votes from New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan, South Carolina and Wyoming for not obeying its scheduling rules.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 20-plus-point lead over the Democratic field makes it less likely that the Democratic convention will be determinative, but with the GOP race more competitive, perhaps the Republican convention could be meaningful.

The Republicans, who give state parties more clout in setting the primary calendar, are stripping only half the delegates from states that don’t comply with scheduling rules, and in general they let the Democrats take the lead in setting the primary calendar.

Counting delegates

As it now stands, Michigan (voting Jan. 15) and Florida (Jan. 29), which between them would normally have about 16 percent of the delegates needed to win the party’s nomination, will get zero Democratic delegates. But those states are having primaries anyway, and candidates will win or lose those contests. Those states plus New Hampshire, South Carolina and Wyoming would be stripped of what amounts to about 11 percent of the delegates needed for the GOP nomination.

Even without a close race, the national parties’ efforts to force states to vote on their schedule showcases the reality that political parties can control who gets to go to their convention but otherwise are legally impotent.

The DNC had put its foot down and decided Iowa and New Hampshire would not be the only states to vote so early that they attracted hordes of presidential candidates. It decided that Nevada and South Carolina should get their days in the sun and hold their primaries immediately after Iowa and New Hampshire.

The DNC then banned any other states from voting before Feb. 5, 2008.

But since this is America, lawsuits have followed. Past judicial precedent gives political parties broad latitude in how they conduct themselves. Yet no one would be shocked if a friendly judge in one of the penalized states sided with the locals.

November battlegrounds

And, of course, the irony of the whole mess is that we pretty much know that, in the end, the delegates from every state will be seated at the conventions, whether or not they have any sway in picking the nominee.

That’s because Florida, New Hampshire and, to a slightly lesser extent, Michigan, are key November battlegrounds. Everyone will make nice because neither national party can risk alienating voters in those states.

And that may not be a hypothetical problem. A Quinnipiac University poll this week found that about a fifth of independent voters in Florida would be less likely to vote Democratic because of resentment about the DNC action.