The 2008 presidential contest has dominated political news for over a year, starting almost immediately after the 2006 midterm elections.  Most of the coverage has devolved, as it always does, to discussion of the “horse race” among the candidates, the competition for fundraising, and an insufferably large number of debates and fora that few actual voters watch.  Amid the chaos, the more significant process of scheduling the voting has largely escaped the general public’s attention.  What will ultimately determine the nominees for president in both parties are the rivalries among states seeking precedence in the primary elections and the contest for control of the process between the national and state parties.  In the current cycle, state parties are setting the schedule and dominating the process.  At first glance, this might seem a welcome change, but instead of vivifying and broadening the presidential primaries to make more states relevant to the nominating process, it threatens to make many states jockeying for position even less influential than they have been in previous elections.

The stampede of two-dozen states to move their elections and caucuses to early February (or even earlier) has revealed the limits and weaknesses of national party organizations in governing the selection of their nominees, but these states may have inadvertently bound themselves more closely to the outcomes of the January votes than they were in the past.  The larger states that have moved up their elections may have a more decisive impact over the final outcome.  However, in so doing they will likely be anointing either the candidate with the greatest name recognition or the winner of the first two or three contests.  Instead of influencing the process, they will be ending the process.

The rush of larger states to move their primaries began almost as soon as the first candidates announced their intentions.  No state has yet tried to infringe on the customary primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire, but the change of election date by a score of states to February 5 has put significant pressure on Iowa and New Hampshire to push their dates back as well.  Iowa Democrats and Republicans settled on a date of January 3 only in late October (the original date had been January 14), and, on November 23, New Hampshire officially declared the date of its “first in the nation” primary, which had been scheduled for January 22, to be January 8.

Come January, in addition to Iowa and New Hampshire, there will be a Democratic caucus in Nevada on the 19th and primaries for both parties in South Carolina  (Republicans on January 19, and Democrats on January 26).  Florida and Michigan have both tried to usurp South Carolina’s recently minted position as host of the first primary following New Hampshire, with Florida moving to the same day and Michigan claiming January 15.  These moves have particularly infuriated the national Democratic leadership, which had settled on a four-state arrangement in 2006.  Including Nevada was the DNC’s attempt to satisfy Western, labor, Hispanic, and black constituencies with an early vote that would give them more influence in the nominating process, while retaining the customary pair of states voting in January.

The DNC has attempted to rein in the states by penalizing Florida and Michigan: Their delegates will not be recognized, and presidential candidates have been banned from campaigning and advertising in those states.  (On the Republican side, both states will lose half of their delegates, but there has been no ban on campaigning.)  As a result, five of the Democratic presidential candidates have one-upped the DNC by withdrawing from the Michigan ballot altogether.  Democratic primary voters in Michigan will be allowed to choose between Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd.  The ban on campaigning in Florida strengthens Hillary Clinton, who currently has a commanding lead in both Florida and Michigan and the most national name recognition.  Should the DNC later opt to reinstate the delegates from the two states, she would have two virtually uncontested victories.  In any case, the publicity that comes from winning the two votes, even if it remains technically irrelevant to the nominating process, will still have an effect on early February voting.

Likewise, the clustering of 23 states on February 5 aids the best-known and best-funded candidates and functions as something as close to a national primary as we have seen, determining the allocation of half of all delegates a little over a month after voting has begun.  On February 5, there will be more primaries and caucuses on a single day than on the once-influential Super Tuesday, which first emerged in early March during the 1984 Democratic nominating contest.  The new Super Tuesday will include some of the most delegate-rich states—California, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois.  There will be Democratic votes in New Mexico and Idaho; a Republican West Virginia primary; and contests for both parties in Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Kansas, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.  North Carolina may also adopt the February 5 date.

Several of the larger states represent heavily urbanized and racially mixed populations, so moving their votes to February 5 will alter the character of the nominating process and skew it in favor of large states and urban interests.  The left has routinely complained that the populations of Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which are predominantly white and hail from relatively small towns or rural areas, are “unrepresentative of America.”  Opponents of the current system think this distorts the process for the rest of the country—by which they mean, of course, that it guarantees the selection of candidates who are relatively less liberal.  Of necessity, the “front-loaded” system that is emerging favors those candidates who have ready access to money and departs radically from the custom of the last few decades of “retail politics,” while, at the same time, empowering all those constituencies not represented in the first two states.

In pursuing earlier primary elections, individual states have their respective interests in mind.  Some simply want to increase their clout in the process; others have more specific objectives.  In the past, California held its vote in March along with many of the other larger states, but its legislature would like to wield a level of influence in the nominating process commensurate with California’s size and population.  In many recent elections, the presidential nomination has been all but secured by the time larger states have started voting in March.  Several other states that have favorite-son presidential candidates have taken advantage of the general primary chaos to give their respective politicians a chance to pick up delegates early.  New York has changed its election date to benefit Hillary Clinton (a move that will also benefit Giuliani), and Illinois has done the same for Barack Obama, while Tennessee’s primary obviously aids Fred Thompson.  Even non-front-runners such as Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden will be given home-state contests that they can likely dominate.  As the larger states began moving their election dates, a host of smaller states quickly followed, not wanting to be deprived of their share of the electoral bonanza.  With each “native” candidate set to enjoy a largely uncontested victory, there will be little incentive for others to challenge him in his home state.  This will actually reduce the importance of these states to the eventual nominee and could reduce and limit their influence on the very process they are trying to shape.

Several candidates have adjusted their strategies accordingly, including Giuliani and Thompson.  On account of Giuliani’s weakness in the early states—to date, he has almost completely neglected Iowa—he has focused more attention than almost any other candidate on Florida and California.  In the meantime, Fred Thompson seems to be counting on his celebrity to propel his campaign to successful showings in a number of the larger states.  Thompson’s presence in the states hosting the first two primaries has been minimal, and he has outlined a strategy aimed at winning in South Carolina and focusing on the other Southern primaries above everything else.  However, rather than accentuating regional diversity and splitting delegates among several candidates, the concentration of primaries seems likely to efface the regional strengths of different candidates and confirm the hierarchy of candidates invented by political reporters and donors.  Nationally lesser-known candidates, such as Mitt Romney, have been compelled to run traditional primary campaigns focused almost exclusively on the first three contests, which all but guarantees the collapse of their campaigns if they are unable to draw at least a second-place finish in the first month.

The concentration of primaries will clearly work to the benefit of candidates with the most national media exposure.  With so many heavily urbanized centers voting on the same day, more liberal and statist candidates, such as Giuliani, will gain a decisive advantage.  Campaigning will be done largely through television and radio, allowing famous candidates to exploit their celebrity and gloss over any issues—immigration, abortion, economic policy, Iraq, Iran—that threaten to stir up problems with their respective core constituencies.  Meanwhile, it will be next to impossible for any campaign to mount the kind of political comeback that was still feasible as late as 1992.  In an alleged bid to “diversify” the primary process, the mass of so many states voting on the same day will have an inevitable homogenizing effect that will yield candidates who may very well be deeply at odds with their bases over major questions of policy.  Ultimately, the states voting on February 5 will have managed to undo the one theoretical virtue of the primary system, which was its capacity for permitting, however briefly and insufficiently, dissenting and anti-establishment voices to be heard.