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.

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.

Until the modern era of front-loaded primaries, any similar arrangement in the United States would have been all but impossible. It usually took well into spring or summer of an election year for the presumptive nominees to emerge from the field, and they weren’t home free until the political conventions. Then they basically had two months, September and October (August being vacation season), to establish themselves as party leaders, mount national campaigns, and (re)position themselves for the general electorate. Naming prospective appointees, apart from the vice-presidential nominee, was out of the question in the time available. People often complained that the American presidential race as a whole, from exploratory committee through general election, was too long; the real problem was that the general-election race was too short.

Today’s earlier primary cycle can rectify the imbalance, if presumptive nominees take advantage of it. Conventions nowadays are no more than coronations, and the pretense that they matter has mostly melted away. Modern candidates feel more or less free to act like nominees from the day their lead becomes unassailable. If Giuliani and Clinton, or McCain and Obama, or whoever and whoever, stitched up the nomination in mid-February, they could easily vet and name slates of key appointees in time for the conventions. (An encouraging straw wafted by in April, when McCain, his nascent campaign flagging, reeled off a list of impressive people he might appoint to top Pentagon jobs.) By November, the voters would have a clear picture not only of the rival candidates but also of the rival administrations.

Having this information in the hands of voters would be a good thing. Having it in the hands of presidents-elect would be even better. “Transition,” as a description of what happens in the 11 weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day, is the most optimistic euphemism in American politics. What really happens is a chaotic scramble to fill dozens of top government jobs. During this bumpiest passage in American governance, the ride would be smoother if a slate of senior officials—secretaries of state, defense, and treasury, the chief economic adviser, and so on—were standing by on the day after the election.

So hurry up, New Hampshire. Step on it, Iowa. In fact, how does Thanksgiving sound?