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Wednesday, May 07, 2008
While the Democratic presidential race looks like it may finally be coming to a conclusion, the issue of what to do about Florida and Michigan’s delegations is still unresolved.

As a preliminary matter, I am not at all convinced of the conventional wisdom that Florida and Michigan delegations must be seated for electoral reasons. This is based on the theory that voters who would otherwise vote Democratic (say, because they want to end the war in Iraq or want better health care or are ticked off about Republican mismanagement of the economy or disaster relief or just because they like Barack Obama) will be so ticked off over who gets credentialed at the (likely meaningless) Democratic Convention in Denver that they will sit out the election or vote for John McCain. That entire line of reasoning seems doubtful at best.

But assuming the issue has any importance at all, the media has gotten this quite wrong. What happened is this. Traditionally, political primaries were not that important. New Hampshire went first, but many states didn’t have primaries at all and many states that did have primaries didn’t have much impact on the election because the voters did not vote for leading candidates. Rather, political insiders controlled the bulk of the delegates at the conventions and they selected the presidential nominees.

In the 1960's and 1970's, this began to change, with more states holding primaries as well as caucuses (which were more informal and had lower rates of participation than primaries), leading candidates campaigning through the primaries and caucuses, and the media covering them. Suddenly, the primaries were important, and New Hampshire was still going first. And Iowa secured its spot in 1976, when Jimmy Carter, a not-particularly-well-known state governor, won the Iowa caucuses which were held before the New Hampshire primary.

Ever since then, the history has been as follows: the primaries have grown to greater and greater importance each cycle, with more media coverage and more importance attached to early primary results. Thus, you can no longer enter the race in March, as Robert F. Kennedy did in 1968, and have a shot at the nomination. Rather, you have to campaign at least a year out in Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates respond to this by pandering to these small, unrepresentative states’ parochial interests, giving us stupid ethanol subsidies because of Iowa’s powerful corn industry. More important to our story, candidates also pander to Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s strong desire to maintain their first-in-the-nation positions and their outsized influence.

Meanwhile, in a series of successive elections, the nomination got decided earlier and earlier in the process. States that held late primaries found themselves holding meaningless votes. Not only that, but even those states whose votes were early enough to “matter” were left with 2 or 3 viable candidates to vote for, because the bulk of the candidates (including some very qualified people) were forced to drop out after Iowa and New Hampshire as their money dried up after poor showings.

So, the natural reaction of other states was to move their primaries up in the calendar. Now here’s where it gets interesting. Because the national parties actually like Iowa and New Hampshire. There are many possible reasons for this, though, interestingly, it doesn’t get as much comment as it should. I suspect part of it is that small states like Iowa and New Hampshire are actually more susceptible to the influence of insiders, because superior organization, provided by party insiders, and important interest groups (such as labor unions), can win a small state. (In contrast, you win a big state by putting lots of advertisements on the air, and fundraising, unlike organization, is harder for insiders to control or influence.) Another possible explanation I have seen floated for the love of New Hampshire, at the very least, is that it is close enough to the Washington, D.C. and New York areas to be relatively easily accessible for the candidates, donors, and media.

In any event, whatever the reason, it is clear that the parties are committed to having Iowa and New Hampshire go first. So each election cycle, they pass rules that punish states that move their primaries up and position them either before Iowa and New Hampshire or too soon thereafter. The usual way this works is that they refuse to seat at the convention some of the delegates from the states that move up their primaries.

Of course, this has proved to be a toothless sanction, as states accurately perceived that the conventions didn’t matter but the time you held a primary did. So they continued to move up primaries despite the sanctions. In response, Howard Dean, the DNC chairman, upped the ante in 2008. He responded to criticisms about Iowa and New Hampshire being unrepresentative states by allowing the more diverse small states of Nevada (with plenty of Hispanics) and South Carolina (with plenty of blacks) to go earlier than other states (though Iowa would still be the first caucus and New Hampshire the first primary). But he also said that if any state went early, they would lose all of their delegates. Not half, all. Further, Dean got the major candidates to agree tht they would not campaign in rulebreaking states, in the hope that the lack of campaigning would discredit the results and keep the media from covering them or assigning them any importance. (Remember, media coverage is crucial here, because it is precisely the media coverage given to early states that makes them so important. Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s respective shares of the total number of delegates to the conventions are minuscule.)

Of course, that gets us to Florida and Michigan. They perceived that even losing all of their delegates and not having campaigning wouldn’t outweigh the advantage gained from going early. And, to address a talking point put forth by Clinton supporters, this was true of Democrats as well as Republicans. If there is one thing that is a matter of true and genuine bipartisan agreement, it is the belief in big states that it isn’t fair that their votes in presidential primaries don’t count while Iowa and New Hampshire voters are kingmakers.

So, Florida and Michigan decided to buck the rules, based on the calculation that this was the only way to ensure that their voters’ votes would count at all, because media coverage of their primary election winners was more valuable than actual convention delegates selected too late in the process to matter.

Of course, they lost their bet. First, Obama and Edwards took their names off the ballot in Michigan, effectively rendering that primary into a farce. Second, it turned out that the later primaries did matter, because Obama and Clinton were so closely matched. (It should be mentioned that the bet was only a bad bet on the Democratic side– Florida Republicans got to be the voters who ended Rudy Giuliani’s bid and propelled John McCain to the nomination.) Third, again because of the close match between Obama and Clinton, the party is not in a position to seat the states delegations’ notwithstanding the rules (this ran contrary to another assumption of Florida and Michigan political leaders, who figured that after the nominee was selected, the parties would find a way to seat delegations so that all 50 states were represented at the conventions). Rather, the party has to remain neutral on the issue and insist on enforcing the rules as long as Obama and Clinton continue to compete for the nomination, because anything else would be seen as changing the rules to benefit Clinton.

Now, here’s the key. If you listen to the media, there are many villains here. Hillary Clinton, of course, gets blamed (and rightly so) for insisting that these states should count after she agreed they wouldn’t when she was pandering to get votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. The politicians in Michigan and Florida are blamed for moving up their primaries and then seeking a rule change when it didn’t work out the way they planned. They were warned, of course. State legislatures are being blamed, along with the DNC and the Obama campaign, for not coming up with a scheme to hold make-up primaries or caucuses.

But what is amazing to me is that the most culpable parties in this entire story are getting off scot-free, with no criticism whatsoever. That’s right, Iowa and New Hampshire. It is their insistence on going first that caused the entire problem.

The fact is, nobody would ever deliberately create a system where two lily-white tiny states with parochial interests and populations that are so unlike the rest of the country would be given a disproportionate influence on the presidential selection process, including the power to veto candidates who might be more effective and desirable representatives for the much larger populations in the bigger states. And this crisis flows directly from their insistence that only they can go first.

I have heard a lot of talk about how the Democratic Party, the states, and the campaigns might fix the Florida and Michigan situations in this cycle. But absent a serious reform of the process that lets other states in and doesn’t give an entirely unfair and inordinate amount of influence to these two states, there’s no reason to believe that other states won’t again move up their primaries in 2012. And who can blame them? In the vast majority of election cycles, we won’t see a Clinton-Obama-style race where the late states matter. And the only way a state can participate in screening the candidates and narrowing the field is to go early. Until the parties take on Iowa and New Hampshire and put them in their place, this problem is likely to recur every four years.


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