Campaign Seasoning

Why early primaries will make for a better president

The presidential campaign is under way. You may have noticed. It has been under way for months. And months. You may have noticed that, too. By the end of the first quarter of 2007, with the election still the better part of two years away, the candidates had already raised nearly a third as much money as their counterparts did during the entire 1996 campaign. Never have so much campaigning and money-chasing begun so early.

The reason, or at least a reason, is that the primary calendar has relentlessly advanced. States jockey for early and, as they hope, influential positions, and Iowa (which holds a caucus) and New Hampshire continue to insist on preceding all the others. In apparent violation of the laws of physics, New Hampshire appears willing to precede itself, if necessary. The pressure is constantly forward.

By swarming to the front of the calendar, the states risk packing themselves in so tightly as to create what amounts to a national super-primary. Next year a majority of states, controlling a majority of the delegates to the nominating conventions, plan to hold their contests in the three weeks from January 14 to February 5, with more than 20 on the 5th alone. (By comparison, in 2004 only nine states had made their picks by the first Tuesday in February.) The candidates would need to clone themselves to campaign in so many states at once.

The upshot, as the Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote earlier this year, is that “a selection system that used to begin in March now is over in February— at the latest.” He pronounced this state of affairs “insane.” Actually, there is some chance that the process, especially on the Democratic side, might last beyond February, if no clear leader emerges from the multistate extravaganza of February 5; but if, as many observers expect, the choices are settled in time for Valentine’s Day, here is a heartening thought: What we’re seeing may in fact be creeping sanity.

A common worry is that front-loaded, early primaries favor politicians “who begin with high name recognition and big bankrolls,” as an editorial in The Nation recently put it. That worry may have some merit, but it squares poorly with another common worry, which is that packed-together primaries might allow a flaky candidate to ride early-state momentum to the nomination. Pay your money, pick your worry. The advantaging of big-name, big-money candidates is a fact of life, and the older, slower primary schedule did not prevent the nearly unknown Jimmy Carter from riding early momentum to the nomination in 1976.

A more meaningful change is that earlier-starting, earlier-ending primary campaigns allow more time for general-election campaigns, and thus more time to road-test the candidates, which seems like a good thing. Consider a candidate like Barack Obama, who—well, there is no candidate like Barack Obama, who entered the race with a record of inexperience no other serious contender could match. If he were to sew up the nomination in February, we would have eight months to get to know him, an insurance policy that the country’s most recent experiments with inexperience—Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush— suggest is wise.

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Jonathan Rauch is an Atlantic correspondent and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

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