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Now here’s a radical political idea

By
October 24, 2007

You may think that this is the election when you’re finally going to be a gung-ho political activist. A stir-‘em-up conservative. A shake-‘em-up liberal. A straight-ahead independent. Ready to volunteer to work the phones or the blogs. Whatever it takes to help your presidential candidate carry your state.

But you are so gung-ho that you don’t realize that you’ve just been gung-had.

In the 2008 presidential sweepstakes, you have been banished to the ranks of the Silent Majority. Make that the Silenced Majority. The System is saying the presidential nominees will be chosen earlier than ever — way before you and your state ever get to vote.

That’s why we must reform this presidential-nomination system that has finally run itself amok. This column will propose the one reform that can make us all relevant again — without giving any regionally based candidate an overwhelming regional advantage.

It’s called “time zone” primaries and caucuses. And we’ll get to how they work — after we review just how amok things have been run.

Here’s what has happened: A few politicians in a handful of states have decided to play a political game called Campaign Calendar Leap-Frog. Just to make themselves and their states seem important, they have leaped their state’s caucus/primary dates ahead of the original dates for the two traditional first contests — the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. The Calendar Leap Froggers to date: Florida, Michigan, South Carolina and Wyoming.

So Iowa leaped still earlier; its first presidential caucus will be Jan. 3, 2008 — and it may be in 2007! New Hampshire will leap any day now, to either the beginning of 2008 or end of 2007. Seven states will vote in January. On Feb. 5, 2008, there will be 22 state primaries and caucuses. But it will be a hodgepodge and nightmare for candidates, as California and New York will be voting that day and candidates will be stretched too thin, having to crisscross the nation in a gigantic waste of the precious resources of special interests that lobbyists have stuffed into their piggy (see also: pork) banks. We will almost surely have our two major-party presidential nominees chosen before winter has waned. And they will have eight long months when the candidates will be trash talking, attacking or boring the bejabbers out of us before Election Day.

This may be even worse: With caucus/primary season starting Jan. 3 or (insert your own expletive) in December 2007, candidates will be campaigning desperately through the holiday season. Conjure this: Slash-and-burn attack ads pouring out of the TV, sandwiched between “Silent Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” (that Hanukkah hit by the Three Tops). True believers will be tugged from campaign negativity to the Nativity. By day, shopping mall Santas will be asking children if they always tell the truth; by night, politicians will be on the tube, making the kids look saintly by comparison.

It’s time to reform. The National Association of Secretaries of State has endorsed a system in which Iowa and New Hampshire would go first, followed by four regional state primaries/caucuses — Northeast, South, Midwest and West — on the first Tuesday of March, April, May and June. The date when each region votes would be selected in each election year.

But this has one major negative: A candidate who is strong regionally, but weak nationally, could have a huge advantage if her or his region votes first. But there is a way to avoid that built-in regional bias: design the regions according to time zones.

With the states grouped according to time zones, the would be no traditional regional bias. For example, no Southern regional vote. Georgia and South Carolina would vote the same day as Pennsylvania, New York and Maine. So, too, Minnesota and Texas. New Mexico and Montana. California and Washington state.

If this notion seems a bit familiar to some loyal readers, it may be because this columnist has been pushing the idea ever since 1988. Which gives a reader an accurate insight into this column’s powerful influence.

But the time for reform is today. In fact, it was yesterday. This year it looks like we are in for a holiday of glad-handing, glib-promising candidates trying desperately to march in step with the Little Drummer Boy’s pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)