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IN RECENT WEEKS, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and...

January 28, 2007|Christopher S. Lehane | CHRISTOPHER S. LEHANE served as an advisor in the Clinton White House and as press secretary to Al Gore in the 2000 campaign.

IN RECENT WEEKS, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators have talked about giving California a well-deserved bigger say in the presidential campaign by moving up the state's primary. However, if Democrats really want to put the party in the strongest possible position to succeed in presidential elections, let's completely rethink the current primary system and replace it with a nominating process designed to pick the candidate best able to win.

In 2004, the primary season was frontloaded around a few early, relatively small and not especially diverse states in order to identify as quickly as possible the "most electable" candidate and to conserve money for the general election. Because these were small states that are historically won one voter and one constituency group at a time, candidates were rewarded for their retail campaign skills: one-on-one politics, constituency group building and a good biography. Unfortunately, these skills are about as relevant to a 21st century national presidential campaign as horseback riding is relevant to driving a car.

Modern presidential campaigns are tests of character; they're a hunt for candidates who have broad appeal (as opposed to a biography attractive to only a limited range of voters). They're about identifying candidates with the ability to articulate a message that speaks to all Americans, rather than those who rely on the typical 12-point plans constructed for one constituency group or another. Modern presidential races are about the ability to connect with voters over the TV in their living rooms -- not about a candidate's charm when he meets with them in person in their own living rooms. And they're about the capacity to assemble and run a far-flung organization capable of raising well in excess of $100 million in just a few years.

With three reforms, the Democrats can put in place a nominating system that will produce the strongest and, yes, most electable candidate.

First, the Democratic primary schedule should open with a group of states that, when taken together, represents the mosaic that is America. Along with a Midwestern Iowa and a Northeastern New Hampshire, let's have a state from the Southwest, South and West all voting on the same day.

A multi-state campaign taking place on one day and involving a diverse set of states will begin the process of identifying the candidate who can put together the winning qualities of a national campaign.

Second, the primary season needs to be spread over a longer time period -- not just in theory but in practice as well, so candidates are truly tested. Beginning in early February and going until May, Democrats should schedule a series of 10 primaries, with each involving five geographically diverse states voting every two weeks. The diverse and multi-state nature of the races would make it far more likely that the campaign would be competitive for a longer period. (Under the current system, the 2008 primary could effectively be over after four early states vote in a span of a few weeks, as it was in 2004. The compressed time period and winner-take-all nature of the existing system means that whoever does well in these first states, especially the first two, is in all likelihood the presumptive nominee.)

This sort of diverse process over an extended time period worked in 1992 -- the only time in the last 25 years that the Democrats nominated a candidate, Bill Clinton, who went on to be sworn in as president. That year, because Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was running in the Iowa caucuses and because New Hampshire voters chose former Sen. Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts, neither Iowa nor New Hampshire played their historically determinative roles. In fact, the 1992 election was the first time in history that a candidate became president who did not win the New Hampshire primary. Instead, Democrats had to compete vigorously over the course of several months in such places as South Dakota, and then in Georgia (where Clinton got his first win), Maryland, Colorado, South Carolina, Arizona, Super Tuesday, and then on to Connecticut, New York and eventually California, where Clinton wrapped up the nomination in early June.

If Democrats had been using the 2004 primary system in 1992, their nominee could well have been Tsongas. The longer, diversified schedule, however, allowed Clinton to prove himself to voters, exposed the candidates' relative strengths and weaknesses and allowed the Democrats to stay on the offensive and define the terms of the general election. Democrats ended up with a candidate who actually won a number of states in the South and all the states in the upper Midwest -- and who had the message, the battle-hardened ability and the proven campaign operation needed to beat the Republicans.

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