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Defusing Primary Primacy—A Commentary by Chad Flanders ’07

The following commentary was published in The Hartford Courant on April 13, 2007.

Defusing Primary Primacy
By Chad Flanders

With Connecticut preparing to join California, New Jersey and roughly 20 other states in what is now being called the "super-duper Tuesday" presidential primary, America seems inexorably headed toward a national primary - not because anyone necessarily wants one, but because states are rushing madly to be the "first" to select the next presidential nominee.

The predictable result of this race to the front will be that candidates will no longer wage local campaigns - no more getting to know the individual voters in Iowa and New Hampshire - and will be pressured to mount a national campaign from Day One. Even worse, with more states pushing their primaries to the first week of February, the nominee for each party will effectively be chosen when people are only beginning to pay attention to presidential politics. There's got to be a better way of doing things.

To be sure, the previous system was flawed as well, and it needed to be replaced. It gave too much power to certain states (think Iowa and New Hampshire), basically making them the kingmakers. States that had later primaries were essentially shut out of the process. But the solution to this is surely not to make everyone first.

The basic outlines of a better solution were presented in 2005 by James Baker and former President Jimmy Carter. They proposed splitting up the nation into four regions and having regional primaries - alternating the order of the regional primaries every four years. This strikes some of the right notes, but it's still not radical enough.

The Baker/Carter proposal would simply replace a few states deciding the next presidential candidate with a region. Candidates who could secure the first regional primary would be virtually assured of locking out the other candidates from money and media later on.

What we might try, instead, is the following plan. First, we start by dividing the United States into 10 groups of five states, rather than only four regions. States would be grouped together based on both geographical contiguity and nearness of interests, with an effort to make each "cluster" have roughly the same number of electoral votes. Next, we hold a lottery at the beginning of February, and the state cluster that gets chosen agrees to hold its primaries two weeks after the lottery. After that, another state cluster is chosen by lottery, then another, then another, until sometime in June, every state has had a chance to vote for its favored candidate.

In short, the plan combines smaller regions, random ordering and blind selection. No one knows which states will be up next, because the "cluster" is chosen only once the votes from the previous cluster's primaries have been counted up. This forces candidates to focus on one cluster at a time and not look ahead to the next big primary.

The plan isn't perfect. There will probably have to be some regional bias factored in, so that one region doesn't predominate early on, as a matter of chance. And the uncertainty over which state will hold a primary may lead some candidates to wage a national campaigns anyway.

At the same time, the plan has clear advantages over the status quo. Because candidates won't know which state cluster is next, they can't simply make a plan to capture a certain region, or a certain select group of state primaries. Also, the two-week period of intense door-to-door campaigning in adjoining states - and the free media coverage - may give those candidates who don't have much money a leg up. No long plane trips back and forth across the country, no blanketing the nation with expensive ad campaigns: only a focus on the five states in play.

Even if you don't buy the plan, the larger point is this. Unless we think seriously about how we want our primaries to be run, we will end up with a system that nobody wants - a system that, as Connecticut Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz said, benefits the rock stars and the well-funded, who would dominate a de facto national primary.

With a flawed primary system, we are asking for flawed candidates as well. This, again, is something nobody should want.

Chad Flanders is a third-year student at the Yale Law School.