The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

21 August 2004

Primary malfunction

Michael Bates is an at-large delegate from Oklahoma to the Republican National Convention, and he's addressed this letter to the chairmen of all the state delegations:

[We will be] looking ahead to 2008 — we as delegates will vote on the rules which will govern the Republican Party until the next convention, including the 2008 presidential nominating process. The decisions we make at this convention will shape the contest for our party's next standard-bearer, and it's important that we make the most of this once-every-four-years opportunity to reexamine our rules.

Going as far back at least 10 years, there has been a growing sense that the current system of front-loaded and plurality-take-all primaries does not serve our party well, and that the problem is only getting worse as more states move their primaries earlier. At best, we may well find ourselves in 2008 in the same awkward position that the Democrats are in this year. The nominating process would be effectively over eight months before the election, and the party would be stuck with a presumptive nominee who fails to inspire the grass roots of the party and fails to appeal to the American electorate as a whole. At worst, the shortened primary season may not give us enough time to learn about the candidates. Damaging information may emerge about the presumptive nominee during the many months between clinching the nomination and the convention. Under the current rules, if such a flawed candidate refused to step aside, the convention would have no choice but to go ahead and nominate him.

Leading up to the 2000 convention, the Brock Commission studied reforms and brought forward a recommendation known as the Delaware Plan, which would have addressed front-loading by putting the most delegate-rich states at the end of the primary calendar. The plan received the endorsement of the Republican National Committee, but in the Rules Committee it was killed as the result of lobbying by political operatives who were focused on short-term advantage rather than the long-term health of the Republican Party.

First off, I don't think for a minute that Bates is suggesting that John Kerry step aside in favor of someone the Democrats might actually like. Kerry meets the party's quintessential requirement: he is not George W. Bush.

The Delaware Plan, written largely by Wilmington attorney Richard A. Forsten, calls for the twelve smallest states and the District of Columbia to vote in February, the next larger states in March and April, and the largest in May. Its advantages seem apparent: the first batch of states will have relatively low media expenses, which theoretically should allow a greater number of candidates to test the water, and since the last 12 states have nearly half the convention delegates, the nomination likely won't be locked up until May.

"Likely" doesn't mean "always," though, and concerns by big states that they might be cut out of the action have led to developments such as the California Plan, which introduces random factors to mix up the rigid stratification implied by the Delaware Plan.

Still, there's one question that won't go away: do we need primaries at all? Would we be better served if we followed the Iowa model, caucuses starting at the precinct level? Would voters have more interest? Judging by primary turnouts, they could scarcely have less interest now.

Posted at 10:11 AM to Political Science Fiction