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Primary Colors

With minority voters losing trust in the Democratic Party, the presidential candidate nomination process is in need of an overhaul.

NOTE: This article was originally published in The Indicator, Amherst College’s journal of social and political thought: January 2007

Anyone with regular access to a reputable news source in recent weeks is quite comfortable saying that Senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, in no particular order, will be the Democratic presidential ticket in 2008. The only question seems to be which one will be the actual presidential candidate, leaving the other to start raising funds for the assassination attempts. While many see them as viable candidates, confidence in their ability to secure a nomination is waning. A recent public opinion poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports, (tagline: “the most comprehensive public opinion poll coverage ever provided for a mid-term election”) states that “60% of American voters believe that Democrats are likely to nominate a White Male for President in 2008…Among Democrats, 73% say their party is likely to nominate a White Male. That figure includes 30% who consider the possibility Very Likely and 43% who say it’s Somewhat Likely.” The Rasmussen Reports further states that “[t]here is no gender gap on this question, but 81% of black voters believe the Democrats will nominate a White Male. Fifty-eight percent (58%) of white voters agree. Earlier surveys had found that roughly eight-out-of-ten voters express a willingness to personally vote for either a woman or an African-American candidate. However, just over half believe their family, friends, and co-workers are willing to do the same.”

One might wonder how asking a registered Democrat how the rest of his party will vote is relevant in light of the poll that results in 80 percent of responders indicating a willingness to vote for a woman or an African-American candidate themselves. However, these results show that many Democrats are skeptical that the process by which candidates are chosen—a primary system that basically takes the decision of nomination out of the hands of a majority of voters—will actually result in a female and/or minority candidate for the election. The current organization of presidential primaries places the Iowa caucus as the first event in which delegates are selected for the national convention, followed by the New Hampshire primary. Critics of the current system have acknowledged the imbalance of power that Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy in determining whose name appears on the ballots in every fourth November. According to the report from the 2000 National Symposium on Presidential Selection, published by the University of Virginia Center for Governmental Studies, “Because of their ‘first-in-the-nation’ status, these two small states consistently dominate media and candidate attention, thus giving them the power to make or break campaigns.” Even though the purpose of presidential primaries and caucuses is to allow every state to select delegates to nominate the different candidates at the national conventions, the real consequences of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are to gauge the perceived electability of the candidates. Iowa and New Hampshire create a “bandwagon effect” that influences the decisions of voters in subsequent primaries. Voters throughout the country fallaciously assume that whoever wins in Iowa and New Hampshire in January has the best chance of defeating the candidate from the opposing party in November, and taint their own ballots accordingly.

The homogeneous ethnic and economic makeup of the states of Iowa and New Hampshire prevent them from accurately representing the Democratic Party constituency, let alone the population of the United States as a whole. According to US Census Bureau estimates based on the 2000 census, as of 2005, the populations of Iowa and New Hampshire were 95.79 percent and 96.97 percent white, respectively (as a point of reference, the Census Bureau estimates that the United States was 74.7 percent white as of 2005). Although Iowa and New Hampshire are considered swing states and therefore apt choices for nominating a believably moderate candidate capable of winning the general election, these demographics suggest that the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire are less likely than those of other states to identify with a non-white candidate. If the Democratic National Committee is serious about giving ample support to a minority, Iowa and New Hampshire need to be removed from their pedestal.

In the past, some states have tried to increase their own influence by scheduling primaries and caucuses early in the election year. Unfortunately, this usually only results in a tightly compressed primary season, forcing candidates to choose which states to focus on and which to ignore. It accomplishes no real change in the influence the state has because no matter how early a state’s primary is, it can never predate those of Iowa or New Hampshire, which reschedule their primaries earlier and earlier each election year to remain first. While Super Tuesday is a boon to the South, Iowa and New Hampshire still have enough power to break a losing candidate’s resolve (see Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri) and force them out of the race before any Southern supporters they might have get a voice.

Washington, DC tried to increase its influence by holding a protest primary on Tuesday, January 13, 2004, six days before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, which was also designed to call attention to the limited home role of our nation’s capital and the lack of voting rights given to the elected delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton. That morning, I walked out of my house and crossed the street to Rudolph Elementary School, where I had been a student from pre-kindergarten until the sixth grade, and cast a ballot. The next day, I read in The Washington Post that former Vermont governor Howard Dean won with 43 percent of the vote. The runner-up was the Rev. Al Sharpton with 34 percent. They were followed by Carol Moseley-Braun, former senator of Illinois, with twelve percent, and Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio with 8 percent. It may be surprising to hear that Al Sharpton actually came second in a Democratic primary, but these results were not as unexpected as they may sound. Since the Democratic Party wanted the Iowa and New Hampshire to maintain their roles as the first delegate-selecting events of the nomination season, they insisted that the DC protest primary remain non-binding. The District’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention were not chosen at this primary, but instead at a Valentine’s Day caucus, after New Hampshire and Iowa had long since had their say. As a result, five of the candidates chose to remove their names from the protest primary ballot—namely, Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri, retired General Wesley Clark and Senators John Edwards of North Carolina, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts. They focused on their Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns and ignored the District’s primary, rendering it even more irrelevant.

The significance of the 2004 DC protest primary was not only its protest of taxation without representation (a sentiment echoed on many of our license plates), but also an expression of dissatisfaction with the disproportionate influence that the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary have in determining presidential candidates. One might hope that Howard Dean, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, would bring about a change in the Democratic primary calendar for 2008. After all, despite the fact that Sharpton was the only candidate to seriously campaign in DC for the 2004 protest primary, Dean won, and, in a speakerphone call from Vermont to his DC campaign workers, judiciously acknowledged the power of the black vote in determining his victory. (How could he not? The Census Bureau estimates that “Chocolate City” was 58.04 percent African-American as of 2005.) Unfortunately, on August 19, 2006, the DNC decided on a primary schedule for the 2008 nomination season that essentially amounts to more of the same. Under the new schedule, the Iowa caucus is still first, on January 14, followed by a Nevada caucus on January 19, then comes the New Hampshire primary on January 22, and the South Carolina primary on January 29.

Arguably, the addition of these states to the series of early primaries represents an improvement in terms of diversity. Nevada was “only” 86.11 percent white in 2005, and South Carolina was only 68.88 percent white in 2005, surpassing even New York and California, the blue states with an Anglo factor of 75.62 percent and 79.75 percent. But at the August 19 meeting, the DNC took a vindictive turn on the mischievous District of Columbia, deciding to enact penalties for states that fail to honor this schedule. As the 2008 Delegate Selection Rules for the Democratic National Convention dictate, should a state hold a binding primary out of turn, the DNC will halve that state’s allocation of pledged delegates and alternates, and strip the voting rights of unpledged delegates. In addition, Democratic candidates who campaign in disobedient states “may not receive pledged delegates or delegate votes from that state.” To put it simply, a binding protest primary would jeopardize the chances at nomination for every candidate that gets involved, leaving impotent protest primaries like the one in DC three years ago as the only outlet.

Past proposals for primary schedule reform have failed to address several issues that the current system faces. One suggestion was to have a single, national day on which all primaries and caucuses would be held, which is infeasible because it would be expensive and time-consuming for candidates to campaign for nomination at what is essentially the same level that a nominated candidate would for the general elections in November. In fact, it would be more difficult to run for such a primary than the general elections themselves, since in the latter case, the party nominees get the focus of the media and funding that they did not receive before they were nominated. Another idea is known as the Rotating Regional Primary Plan, in which Super Tuesday would not be the only day of multiple regional primaries, adding three more regional primary days for other parts of the nation. The region that gets to have its primaries first would, as the name implies, rotate every election cycle. This plan, of course, would mean that a physically and financially taxing Super Tuesday-caliber campaign would happen four times before the national conventions.

There is one rejected plan, however, that should be implemented. My personal favorite, probably because it involves a lot of complicated (but not at all fuzzy) math, is called the Graduated Random Presidential Primary System, which is designed to address concerns that the candidates that raise the most money the earliest are usually those that win the early primaries. The plan calls for primaries in the least populated states first, which are less expensive to campaign in and allow candidates with the best message rather than the most money to build momentum, and gain financial support from vigilant philanthropists for the later, more expensive races. Most importantly, the plan makes it possible for smaller states with higher minority populations to have a voice early on in the primary season, and in each election year, the primary schedule drastically changes.

Whether or not the city of Washington ever receives full congressional representation or the chance to decide who the Democratic candidate will be, the DNC’s traditional deference to Iowa and New Hampshire prevents them from fully realizing their party ideals. While African-Americans will, in general, continue to vote Democratic for years to come, the current primary system is evidence that the Democratic Party takes the minority vote for granted and will not seriously support progressive candidates, and that the doubts of the responders to the Rasmussen poll are not mislaid.

Originally published in The Indicator, Amherst College’s journal of social and political thought: January 2007



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