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The Primary Follies

It’s too early to tell who either party’s nominee will be this year, but it’s not too early to say that the front-loading of the primary process has been a disaster for both parties—turning the primaries into a dizzying rollercoaster ride that has not helped the base or elites of either party much.

This year’s primaries not only started earlier than ever (in 2000, only Iowa voted on January 24th; this year six states had voted by that point), but were also pushed together far more tightly than in previous years. Most observers, and most of the party and state officials responsible for the change, expected the new calendar to shorten the process and hasten the selection of a nominee. “Cutting the length of the primary season by more than half by jamming the contests together raises the likelihood of a bandwagon developing for the candidate who wins the first few contests,” Karl Rove wrote in December, and “this would allow a candidate to sweep to victory in the subsequent contests that rapidly follow because all that voters will see is his (or her) face on the evening news and in the papers.” Expecting only the early states to matter, every state fought to stake out an early spot, which made the overcrowding all the worse.

But far from bringing about a quick decision, the process has left both parties contemplating the possibility of a brokered convention for the first time in many decades. The early states produced a surprising variety of winners—failing precisely to yield a bandwagon or momentum effect—and it is far from clear that the massive super-primary on February 5th will do much better. It increasingly looks like the later states, those that didn’t crowd the January calendar, and that therefore feared they would be left only to rubber stamp a settled matter, will turn out to play the truly pivotal role in both party’s contests. Virginia and Maryland suddenly look shrewd, if only by accident.

It is too soon to think about how to avoid such a fiasco in the future—we haven’t finished working through the fiasco just yet. But it’s not much too soon. In the Republican party, for instance, changing the primary process requires an arduous four-year rigmarole, which for the 2012 cycle would need to begin with this April’s meeting of the RNC’s rules committee. The Democrats are a little more flexible, but both parties would need the state legislatures to follow their lead, and that’s far from assured after this year’s apparent debacle.

All of which proves some old conservative maxims: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; and if you try to fix it, don’t imagine you can predict how things will turn out.



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