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The national audition

Could the race for the 2008 party nominations be both too long and too short?

June 10, 2007|Ronald Brownstein | RONALD BROWNSTEIN is The Times' national affairs columnist.

TWO GREAT FEARS loom over the competition for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations in 2008. One is that the race will end too soon. The other is that it will never end.

These seemingly contradictory concerns aren't a sign of political schizophrenia. They are a rational response to two changes transforming the way the parties pick their presidential nominees.

On the one hand, the candidates are now running at full speed earlier than ever, as they engage in what amounts to a national audition for the presidency: an unprecedented, public competition for donors, endorsements, support from activists and media attention that began almost immediately after the 2006 midterm election.

On the other hand, the amount of time reserved for voters to actually render a verdict on the candidates is shrinking as the primaries and caucuses are compressed into a narrower window early next year. With half a dozen states planning to vote in January, and at least 21 states scheduling their contests for "Tsunami Tuesday" on Feb. 5, it is probable that both parties will pick their nominees in little more than a one-month blur -- and that the process will be concluded fully nine months before the November election.

Together, these developments raise the incongruous prospect that the longest nomination race in American history will end with a rush to judgment. They also threaten to shift power over the selection of the nominees from rank-and-file voters back toward political insiders -- partly reversing the most important modern change in the way we pick our presidents.

Party insiders -- donors, elected officials, local bosses -- dominated the presidential nomination process for most of U.S. history because they controlled the appointment of state delegations to the party nominating conventions. But after insiders engineered the selection of Vice President Hubert Humphrey over antiwar champion Eugene McCarthy in 1968, the Democratic Party reformed its rules to shift decisive control to delegates chosen by voters through primaries and caucuses. Republicans followed suit.

Those reforms, first instituted in 1972, created a new nominating system with two distinct phases. During the year before the voting, candidates assembled campaign organizations, raised generally modest amounts of money and courted voters in diners and living rooms in the critical first two states of Iowa and New Hampshire. This period was often described as "the invisible primary" because it unfolded with relatively little public attention beyond those two states.

That attention clicked in during the second phase -- the actual voting in primaries and caucuses. During the 1970s and 1980s, this period typically sprawled from Iowa in January through mega-states such as California and New Jersey in June, offering voters as much as five months to measure the contenders after the first states winnowed the field.

This system also allowed lesser-known candidates to catapult themselves into contention with strong showings in the first states. Jimmy Carter was at 4% in a national Gallup poll -- behind seven other Democrats -- before victories in Iowa and New Hampshire ignited his march to the Democratic nomination in 1976. Democrat Gary Hart, scuffling along at just 3% in national polls, had raised so little money before New Hampshire in 1984 that he was forced to take out a second mortgage on his home to buy TV ads there. But after he stunned front-runner Walter Mondale by winning New Hampshire, Hart generated enough cash and support to battle the former vice president step for step until falling just short in June.

Starting in the late 1980s, this system for picking presidential nominees began unraveling as more states moved their primaries and caucus contests to the front of the calendar in the hope of maximizing their influence. This year's changes accelerated that frontloading process to the point where meaningful voting could be compressed into as little as four or five weeks in the winter.

Frontloading in turn has compelled candidates to intensify their activity in the year before the voting. At the same time, the proliferation of media outlets focused on the race -- on the Internet, talk radio and cable TV -- has created a supply-side demand for more visibility. So has a financial arms race that is pressuring the candidates not only to raise more money but to raise their profiles in ways that help attract donors. The result is that the candidates are already jostling -- through debates, policy addresses and pointed exchanges -- at a level formerly unseen until the eve of the actual voting.

Together these changes have transformed the invisible primary into the national audition, and steadily reduced the actual voting -- the period in which rank-and-file voters exert the most influence -- from a marathon to a sprint to a spasm.

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