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May 5, 2011, 4:09 p.m.

A We The People/Check Point poll; con­duc­ted 9/29-10/4 by Wood Comm. Group; sur­veyed 400 LVs; mar­gin of er­ror +/- 4.9% (re­lease, 10/8). Tested: Sen. Russ Fein­gold (D) and busi­ness­man Ron John­son (R).

Gen­er­al Elec­tion Match­up

R. John­son 49% R. Fein­gold 41 Neither 1 Un­dec 8

(For more from this poll, please see today’s WI GOV story.)

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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