This year shows why primary system must change

Sunday, February 10, 2008
    After years in which party presidential nominees are effectively chosen before most voters cast their ballots, 2008's primary season has been a refreshing breath of fresh air, with real races lasting through most of the primaries - if not beyond, as we might see with the Democrats. However, it is also clear that despite this year's excitement, the two parties should look to seriously revamp their nomination systems to avoid alienating their electorate. This year's primary campaigns highlighted glaring deficiencies, one of which - the superdelegates - might still cause a giant headache for the Democrats. But if reforms are not made, future presidential races may erode trust in the selection process.
    There are two main reasons that 2008 saw an exciting election, both of which have nothing to do with the candidates or issues. The first was an anomaly. It was clear since President Bush was re-elected that 2008 would be the first time in more than a half a century where neither an incumbent president nor an incumbent vice president would receive one of the parties' nominations. The lack of an incumbent who could take credit or blame for the actions of the Bush administration radically changed the dynamic of the elections. No candidate was truly able to run on, or be forced to defend, the Bush record. The other side of this coin was at work in the Democratic primary. Even though the race was shaped by an anti-Bush sentiment, the Democrats were not able to run simply as the most electable, as the opponent, whose strengths and weaknesses were unknown. The 2012 election will probably return to the more traditionally structured environment, with the 2008 winner almost certain to seek re-election.
    The other major event was the nationwide rush by states to move up their party primaries to an earlier date - resulting in more than half the voters casting their ballot on Super Tuesday. The states moved up after absorbing a painful lesson: The presidential primaries could be effectively over after only a small fraction of the voters had their say. Therefore, the states decided that the earlier the vote, the better the chance that candidates will pay attention to them. The rush to early primaries has caused an immediate problem for the Democrats. Michigan and Florida, as a punishment for moving their primary elections way up, have been stripped by the party of their delegates. Whether to rescind the punishment and seat these delegates may actually be the question that decides the nomination. If it grants Michigan's and Florida's demands to have their delegates seated (which would substantially help Hillary Rodham Clinton), the Democratic Party is opening itself up to every state jumping to the front in 2012. If the party denies the two states their convention votes, it may cost the nominee two key swing states in November.
    In the future, states would logically continue to try to get noticed by moving up their primary election date. Few people are satisfied with the Iowa and New Hampshire-dominated process or with one big national Super Tuesday-like vote. The parties need to rectify the situation. The most widely espoused measure is to force the states into a handful of regional primaries, much like the original Super Tuesday. This would allow candidates to save on travel and be forced to address region-specific issues.
    While the primary date problem is shared by both parties, the Democratic and Republican parties have a separate problem with regard to their rules for assigning delegates: While close races have made the elections exciting, these controversial rules could actually end up determining the winner in a tight race, but at a great cost to the nominee's general election chances.
    For the Democrats, the problem is increasingly likely to decide the 2008 nominee. Because the race is still so tight, it is quite possible that no candidate may end up claiming a majority by the time voting ends. In that case, the 796 superdelegates made up of elected and party officials who were not chosen by the voters for presidential selection purposes, and who make up nearly 20 percent of the convention, could very well be the tiebreakers. The superdelegates were created back in 1982 in order to grant party leaders a measure of control over the nomination process, while at the same time avoiding an embarrassing convention-floor fight. However, if they end up making the difference in the nomination, especially if the winner comes into the convention in second place, there is a strong possibility of disenchanting a good portion of the party's base - and potentially costing the party the election.
    The Republicans appear to have avoided a convention battle, but they have a separate issue, one that was hidden by Sen. John McCain's strong showing on Super Tuesday. The Republicans, unlike the Democrats, grant each state generous leeway in setting the rules over how to choose their own delegates. The result is a hodgepodge of rules, in which some states allow the statewide winner to sweep all their delegates, others divide the delegates based on the proportion of the vote, while still other states award delegates based on the results in each congressional district. Allowing different systems has resulted in some states being significantly more valuable than others. In a tight race, winning the more valuable states could result in a "wrong winner" garnering the nomination. They therefore provide a great incentive for candidates and their supporters to "game the system."
    Rudy Giuliani bet his presidential campaign on the diverse rules. In June, his supporters went so far as to switch the New Jersey Republican vote from a district-based apportionment to a winner-take-all (or unit rule) system. In the end, the winner-take-all rules did not save Giuliani, but they certainly gave a strong boost to McCain's campaign. But the winner-take-all rules could give a candidate a huge advantage, which could prove insurmountable even if he falls far behind in national popular opinion. As with the Democrats, the party's internal rules could result in a feeling among a large segment of voters that their choice was cheated out of a win, especially if the candidate won those winner-take-all states using crossover and independent voters.
    The excitement of the 2008 primaries seems to have breathed new life into the nominee selection system. But unless the parties make serious reforms to the process, voters may once again feel disenfranchised and ignored come 2012.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y.