Hoover Daily Report

Primary Reform

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Every four years, America goes to the polls to elect a president, which invariably leads to complaints about how we choose our nation's leader—a process that begins with the inordinate political and media attention given to the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses.

Last year was no different. Not long after the final votes were tallied, Democratic activists in both Michigan and a bloc of states west of the Mississippi River lobbied to move their states to the front of the primary process, to undermine the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire. Such reform is long overdue and worthy of serious consideration by both major parties.

Although there are positive aspects to voting early in Iowa and New Hampshire—the high turnout, the smaller electorates that afford a more personal style of "retail" politics—the two states are not the best barometers of national sentiment. They both lack diversity (both are predominantly white). Candidates far too often resort to pandering—farm, ethanol, and heating-oil subsidies—that is beneath the dignity of the office. As for the media, returning to the same two states every four years makes for lazy journalism.

Moreover, the two states are lousy at predicting the November winner; George W. Bush, in 2000, was the only nonincumbent to win the presidency and the Iowa caucuses, whereas his father, in 1988, was the only nonincumbent to win the New Hampshire primary and go on to the Oval Office.

How, then, do we fix the presidential nomination process? Try leading off with at least two states that represent the middle of the political spectrum as defined by the previous national election. To do this, divide the fifty states according to popular vote and find the handful of states in which the winning candidate barely lost or won. If applied to last November's results, these states would be Ohio (the median), Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and New Mexico. Iowa, however, should be eliminated because of its lack of diversity and being too rural.

This would leave the parties with more intriguing campaign terrains. Nevada, for example, is a traditionally conservative state whose politics are changing owing to Las Vegas's population influx. Colorado offers a similar political mosaic. Its capital city, Denver, has a majority minority population. Although a reliably Republican "red" state in presidential years, it elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate last fall. The state is also home to both conservative and liberal activism, ranging from abortion and affirmative action to Ward Churchill, the controversial University of Colorado professor.

The main advantage of this new primary system is novelty. No one state would dominate the proceedings, as do New Hampshire and Iowa now. Every four years, the parties would be looking at a mostly new set of states (twenty years ago, by contrast, the electoral "median" states were Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, and Vermont). This offers the potential for new campaign tactics and fresher media coverage.

In presidential politics, as in life, a change of scenery can be a good thing.