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.
Nothing fully prepares a person for the presidency, of course, but general-election campaigns are the best preparation we’ve got. If it is true that the presidency has become a “permanent campaign,” and that presidents govern the way they campaign, it is also true that candidates campaign the way they would govern. Long campaigns test steadiness, discipline, organizational skill, and, what is so important in a president, the ability to recover and learn from mistakes. They also test how well candidates will wear in the public eye. If Rudy Giuliani is going to turn out to be unpalatably imperious, or Hillary Clinton intolerably cold, eight months should uncover those traits.
For me, though, what tips the scales in favor of early primaries, with the resulting long general-election campaign, is that they give U.S. politics an opportunity to mimic one of the best features of British-style parliamentary politics: the shadow government. American commentators often observe, with envy, that political campaigns in parliamentary systems are much shorter. In Britain, the formal campaign and election span weeks, not months or years. But such commentators tend to overlook the fact that by the time a British election rolls around, voters have had months or years to get to know the candidates, parties, agendas, and even cabinets. The party and prime minister in office are known quantities. Typically, opposition leaders are familiar too, because the parties choose their leaders well in advance of most elections. And these leaders choose shadow cabinets, the men and women who would ascend to ministerial portfolios if the party won. In other words, the voters decide not just between two candidates or even two parties but, in effect, between two governments.