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The Case for Renewed Reform

After some embarrassing flubs, caucus states could soon become a thing of the past.

A broken system? Voters cast primary ballots.(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

photo of Reid Wilson
February 8, 2012

Imagine an election with so many inaccuracies that officials declare a winner; then declare a tie; then declare another winner after two weeks. Imagine an election with rules so confusing that the media is barred from observing and the count takes two full days. Is this some Third World country rigging the count, in desperate need of election monitors? No—it’s Iowa and Nevada, and this year, it’s how the man who could be the next leader of the free world is being picked.

Thanks to movements inside both the Republican and Democratic national committees, 2012 may mark the end of this presidential nominating system. And Iowa and Nevada are the two states most likely to lose their coveted positions at the front of the calendar.
Process reforms instituted by both parties after the 2008 elections achieved at least one key goal; though Republican front-runner Mitt Romney may not like it, a nominating process that extends beyond the early states and well into the spring is exactly what party leaders intended.

The most recent reforms, led by Republican David Norcross and Democrat James Roosevelt, envisioned a nominating process that starts in February and extends for a few months. The goals: Give candidates a break from holiday-time campaigning; ensure that candidates with modest war chests can truly compete; and produce a nominee  battle-tested in every region who isn’t too bruised and bloodied to compete in November.


But the best-laid plans of Democrats and Republicans often go awry, and several states quickly made clear they wouldn’t abide by what actually amounted to little more than a gentleman’s agreement. Successful reform must include both carrots and sticks that can incentivize a state for compliance or punish it for holding its nominating contest outside the rules. The sticks established in 2010—namely, halving a state’s convention delegation and giving them lousy hotel rooms—weren’t enough.

The primary process’s convoluted rules have tripped some candidates and rewarded others with hidden advantages. In 2008, the campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama understood the delegate math better than then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign did, giving Obama a string of caucus-state victories in February that built a delegate lead Clinton could never overcome. This cycle, Romney’s campaign has proven adept at understanding the methods by which a candidate actually gets on the ballot, while Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have each missed ballot deadlines.

For decades, as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina dominated the early-primary process, other states conspired to snatch their influential position. It was Florida’s effort to jump to the front of the calendar that led Iowa to hold its caucuses on Jan. 3 this year, instead of Feb. 6 as originally planned (Florida, which sets its primary by statute, was the first to defy Republican National Committee rules). Michigan and Arizona, whose Feb. 28 primaries are ahead of the date allowed by national parties, are also in violation. Caucus states, which do not bind delegates based on caucus results but award them later through conventions, are not technically breaking party rules.

The next round of reform is likely to punish both Iowa and Nevada. Already Iowa plays only a tiny role in the actual delegate race. The straw poll conducted on Jan. 3 is effectively meaningless; by the time the state party allocates its delegates in June, the Republican nominee will be obvious. Iowa derives its power from the media attention it attracts—attention it may not get again. Nevada Republicans held a convention four years ago that was marred by a fight between party leaders and fans of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, many of whom said they were unfairly barred from participating.

“I’m very hopeful that in four years, people say, ‘I’m not spending a lot of money and getting frostbite if you can’t even count your votes,’ ” Norcross said.

“In Nevada, the fact that they screwed it up twice [in 2008 and 2012] really is inexcusable,” he added.

That may give primary states a better argument against caucus states for a place at the front of the line, especially with New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida standing in marked contrast to caucus states.

“Primaries are usually run by states,” Roosevelt said. “States know how to conduct elections. Parties, if they haven’t done that before, have to learn.”
Because Iowa and Nevada don’t actually allocate delegates until much later, they thrive only on media attention. Take away that and they lose their primary-election clout—something that more than a few senior members in both parties hope happens.

“The best thing anyone can hope for out of Iowa is that the media and the candidates pay as much attention to them as they deserve, which is not much,” Norcross said.

Understanding the rules matters; but even the greatest democracy in the history of the world still relies on methods fraught with volatility and human error. Reform is coming soon—the question is whether the two parties can craft an agreement that gives them greater control over the way they pick the next leader of the free world.


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