Don't Blink

The presidential nomination fights could be over by early February 2008.

From the archives:

Primary Considerations
If the first presidential primary were held in the "most representative" state, which one would that be? By Cullen Murphy

Tired already of the 2008 presidential campaign? Here's good news: In less than a year, the nomination fights could be over. February 5, 2008, could wind up even bigger than the traditional Super Tuesday. It could be Super-Duper Tuesday.

In just 11 months, the first real votes will be cast in the 2008 contest. And then look at what happens if the current nominating calendar holds. On Monday, January 14, the Iowa caucuses start the 2008 voting. Five days later, Nevada Democrats hold their caucuses. Then on Tuesday, January 22, New Hampshire hosts its primary. A week later, on January 29, South Carolina Democrats have their primary, followed by South Carolina Republicans on Saturday, February 2.

Then on February 5, nine states are scheduled to hold primaries or caucuses: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia. Another 11 are considering advancing their contests to that Tuesday, including big states like Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan—and, the biggest of all, California. The others pondering a move are Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Wyoming.

Super-Duper Tuesday could become, essentially, a national primary. The campaign would start on January 14 and end just over three weeks later, with two-thirds of the Democratic delegates and more than 80 percent of the Republican delegates chosen by February 6.

The reason all those states might move up their voting is that they want a cut of the action. They think that less attention should be paid to small states like Iowa and New Hampshire and more paid to big, diverse states like Florida and California. After all, how representative, really, are Iowa (95 percent white) and New Hampshire (96 percent white)?

Of course, one reason that Iowa and New Hampshire believe they deserve to go first has nothing to do with their being diverse or representative. It's that they are small. These two states encourage—indeed, demand—face-to-face campaigning in intimate settings. To run in the large states, a presidential candidate must have big money and national name recognition. Obscure contenders need not apply. But then, why should we have a system that helps obscure contenders? Maybe nationally known candidates who can raise big money ought to have the advantage in presidential contests.

Historically, obscure candidates have sometimes pulled off surprise victories: Jimmy Carter won New Hampshire's 1976 Democratic primary, for example. In 2008, however, a surprise early winner wouldn't have much time to raise enough money to compete in, say, California two weeks later, even with the rapid advance of Internet fundraising.

Moreover, California, Florida and several other potential Super-Duper Tuesday states allow early voting, beginning weeks before primary day. A lot of voters in those states could be casting ballots before anyone votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, before the campaign gets to their states, and before any surprise winners are known. People in Florida or California could end up voting for candidates whose poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire essentially end their campaigns.

Primaries are supposed to be a killing field, where most candidates are removed from contention. Early voting could end up keeping struggling candidates alive.

On the other hand, the new calendar could help Iowa and New Hampshire maintain their importance. A candidate could pull off a surprise win in one of the preliminary states and then rely on news coverage ("free media," in campaign parlance) to get propelled to victory in subsequent contests. In 1984, Gary Hart won an upset over front-runner Walter Mondale in New Hampshire and then won the March 13 Florida primary because of sheer momentum, what President Bush's father once called "The Big Mo."

So the best way to win a national primary could be to concentrate on Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—and to ignore California, Florida, and New Jersey. With so many voters spread all over the map, and with only a week or two of the campaign all to themselves, big-state voters may see almost no campaigning and very little attention paid to their concerns.

What are we left with? A nominating campaign that's starting earlier than ever and that could shut down in record time.