Friday, August 24, 2007

Primary Obsession

Aside from the perpetual budget trainwreck, the major political news in Michigan recently has been the effort to move Michigan's 2008 presidential primary.

Explaining the present situation requires some background information. Michigan has state-run Republican and Democratic primaries. However, Democratic Party rules nullify the primary, instead making a party caucus the means of allocating delegates. The Democrats have used caucuses since 1972, when George Wallace won the state democratic primary.

This opened the Republican primary to meddling by non-Republicans. This came to fruition in 2000. Teacher unions and some democrat politicians led an effort to get democrats to vote for John McCain over George Bush to embarrass John Engler, who was backing Bush, along with most of the state Republican establishment. McCain won the primary, even though Bush won a majority of self-identified Republicans in exit polls.

Many Republicans would like a more restricted delegate selection process this time. More moderate Republicans typically prefer a more open process so that independents and democrats can vote for them. More conservative Republicans typically prefer a more closed process, which benefits them.

The bigger motivation in the primary issue is the desire to move up Michigan's primary. Due to the fact that "momentum", real or perceived, plays a huge role in media coverage and ultimately voting results of a primary campaign, early states have a hugely disproportionate influence on the selection of a presidential nominee. The nomination is usually decided by the first ten or fifteen states.

Numerous Republicans have expressed the desire to move up the state's primary. On the democratic side, Senator Carl Levin has the state democrats' so far unsuccessful efforts to challenge the dominance of Iowa and New Hampshire.

However, any changes to the primary requires the approval of the state legislature, which requires the consent of the Democrats. This has allowed the democrats to drag things out, since they already have a caucus system in place. The Republicans needed a backup system in case things didn't work out in the legislature.

A party run primary was a possibility. But with no experience running one, and with various campaigns jockeying for advantage, this looked like a disaster in the making. A state convention appears to be a more realistic possibility.

A state convention would benefit candidates with strong support in the state party establishment (Romney and McCain) and candidates with strong grass roots support (Ron Paul, and possibly others). It would hurt candidates whose support is based more on name recognition (Giuliani, possibly Thompson).

The rules for such a convention would be critical, as they could determine which candidate is victorious. One controversy revolved around whether there would be a secret ballot. Not having a secret ballot would allow for vote buying and arm twisting, which would benefit establishment candidates.

It may be a moot point, as a primary bill appears to be moving through the legislature.

Michigan is not the only state to consider moving its primary. Numerous states have moved their primaries to February 5, which is becoming known as "super-duper Tuesday". This continues the trend toward ever earlier primaries seen in previous election cycles. They have largely cancelled each other out in their bids for more influence. A system that would make more sense is the proposal for four or five mass primaries, starting with the least populous states, and proceeding to the most populous.

Why are states so interested in moving their primaries? The usual rationale is that having more influence in the selection process will benefit the state. But how? There are few real "state issues"; voters mostly vote on national issues. Candidates may promise more federal spending, but such promises are likely to be forgotten by election day.

But don't forget that the decision to move a primary is made by politicians. Politicians benefit from moving up a primary because presidential candidates looking for endorsements shower them with contributions. Members of the party establishment can get jobs working for candidates. So while moving the primary may not benefit the state much, it benefits the political class a lot.

So the primary fight may not matter much, but it's interesting for political junkies to watch.

2 comments: said...

Interesting doens't begin to describe it, does it?


Anonymous said...

You have neglected a most important issue here Allan. The question is why should Iowa and New Hampshire play such a commanding role in deciding who the rest of us get to vote for? Your analysis of what's going on completely ignores this odd aspect of American politics; that two states, which are increasingly less representative of the American electorate, play a hugely disproportionate role in the nominating process. Moreover, the entire primary system is flawed given the fact that we live in a strict two-party system. It is a stretch to persuade one that only members of a particular party should be allowed to decide who gets to appear on that party's ticket. Such arguments ring hollow when the two major parties bend over backwards to minimize the chance a true third party candidate might arise. If it is not possible for non-party members to play a role in deciding who they get to vote for, there is a decidedly un-democratic feel to the entire process. Therefore, you are most certainly wrong (as is your fan Nick) that nothing interesting is going on. What's at stake is nothing less than the heart of American Democracy.