WASHINGTON — The Democratic presidential primary system has become a political relic. It distorts democracy and disenfranchises millions of Democrats. It should be replaced with either a national primary or, at the very least, rotating regional primary elections.
Yes, retail politics made a real difference in the Iowa caucuses. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's unexpected first-place showing sprang, in part, from solid performances in town halls, coffee shops, churches and schools. He took questions and listened to Iowans' parochial worries. He paid tribute to the virtues of ethanol, while his competitors sang paeans to the family farm and Iowa's famous loose-meat sandwiches.
As admirable as these democratic virtues are, just 22% of Iowa's Democratic voters, or 6% of Iowa's electorate, rearranged the Democratic presidential landscape when they caucused last week. About 125,000 Iowans effectively ended the political career of Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and possibly mortally wounded the candidacy of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, before tens of millions of registered Democrats even cast a vote. On Tuesday, chances are good that a sizable percentage of New Hampshire voters in the Democratic primary will further winnow the field. By Wednesday morning, one-half of 1% of the nation's Democrats will have decisively shaped the race for the nomination.
Democratic insurgents created the current system after 1968 to eliminate the power of labor leaders, elected officials and party chiefs in picking the presidential nominee. The new primary process emphasized candidates, grass roots and voters. But it gave enormous clout and control to the first two states rating the candidates. Since its inception, no Democrat has won the nomination without finishing first or second in either Iowa or New Hampshire.
Many Democrats have felt left out, as Kenneth Baer, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, reveals in his book "Reinventing Democrats." One of them was Al From, whose centrist Democratic Leadership Council was seeking a way, in 1987, to offset the dominance of Iowa and New Hampshire in the nomination process. "With all due respect," he said, "I don't think someone who lives in Dubuque should force a candidate to come flip pancakes in their kitchen four or five times in order to judge who should be president."
Seventeen years later, From's complaint has many echoes. This month, Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell lamented that Pennsylvania would have no influence over the nomination because his state's primary is held in late April. He promised to work to move up the primary date in 2008, setting his state on a collision course with New Hampshire, which jealously guards its first-primary-in-the-nation status. And Rendell's tactic is no guarantee. The primaries of two of the nation's most populous states, California and New York, were moved to early March so they might influence the nomination choice, but that's probably too late to have any impact in 2004.
A national primary day or rotating regional primaries would end this imbalance and strengthen democracy and the Democratic Party on at least three levels.
First, candidates with the widest appeal -- that is, competitive in every region of the country -- would enjoy a natural advantage. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark have staked their candidacies, in part, on the claim that they can go toe-to-toe with President Bush in the South, the GOP's quadrennial stamping ground. A national primary day would put such claims to a stiff electoral test.
Candidates who can bridge ethnic, religious and regional gaps would be more likely to win the nomination under a national system, ensuring a stronger standard bearer in the fall. Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white and Protestant. In an age of increasing heterogeneity, the party should adopt a selection process that reflects this diversity.
Second, by spotlighting broader concerns, a national primary day would gird the party for the rigors of the general election. Flood relief, farm subsidies and ethanol would receive less attention; terrorism, crime, Medicare and tax reform more. In his State of the Union address, Bush tarred Democrats as soft on terrorism, a charge not easily rebutted when candidates are brawling over their commitment -- whose is greatest? -- to corn-based fuel. A national primary, by contrast, would give Democratic candidates better opportunities to repudiate such claims.
Third, and most crucial, primaries, held nationwide or regionally, would bring us closer to the goal of one person, one vote, the standard on which our democracy rests. For example, the vote of a registered Democrat in California may be virtually meaningless by the March 2 primary. By then, voters in other states may have already chosen, or predetermined, the nominee. A national vote would give Californians and millions of other voters real influence and restore their franchise.