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March madness: how the primary schedule favors the rich.

A small boast: I have perfected question guaranteed to prompt gape-jawed puzzlement from would-be presidential candidates of both parties. I have not been inquiring about knotty policy conundrums like the economic implications of the Euro or Medicare financing formulas for teaching hospitals. Nor have I invaded marital privacy with one of those snarky have-you-ever queries so favored by the character cops on the political beat. Rather, my question is directly relevant for any long-shot dreamer who fantasizes about taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2001.

Here's what I ask: Do you worry that the primary calendar is so rigged that only the best-financed candidates have a shot at winning a presidential nomination? John McCain, the press pack's favorite Republican, confessed that he hadn't thought about the question. Nor had liberal maverick Paul Wellstone on the Democratic side. John Ashcroft, who seems to be the self-appointed candidate of the unborn, ruefully admitted, "It takes wiser heads than mine to figure it out. We've got to play by the rules that they've set up."

Ashcroft talks as if these rules were set down by the Marquess of Queensberry to add a note of gentlemanly fair play to the rough-and-tumble of political combat. In truth, the primary schedule resembles nothing so much as the Mad Tea Party from "Alice in Wonderland" Both parties are likely to select their nominees in 2000 under a hyper-compressed, warp-speed timetable that only money-talks front-runners like Al Gore and 15-year-old computer geeks with joy sticks could possibly love. I know it seems bizarre to brood about the dates for the primaries more than 18 months before the Iowa caucuses, especially with our campaign-finance laws in tatters and the political mood as ugly as the Jerry Springer Show. But I am convinced that the primary calendar, more than any other single factor, unfairly dictates outcomes.

As recently as 1992, the primaries meandered from New Hampshire in mid-February until California in early June. Bill Clinton, for example, uttered his famous I-didn't-inhale puffery in an April TV interview on the eve of the New York primary and didn't silence the doubters in the Democratic Party until he nailed down California. OK, the dour Paul Tsongas, Clinton's last mainstream rival for the nomination, did not survive the daunting gauntlet of mid-March primaries known as Super Tuesday. But this long march to the nomination gave the voters and the press more than enough time to take the measure of Clinton's talents and character, even though some of us may regret our seal of approval.

For reasons that in hindsight defy rational analysis, the GOP establishment in 1996 was determined to nominate septuagenarian Bob Dole or the owlish Phil Gramm. With the Democrats preoccupied with White House coffees, Republicans were free to concoct a cock-eyed rush to judgment, encouraging states to cluster their primaries and caucuses in March. The unspoken logic was to dispense with the messy uncertainties of democracy and coronate a nominee by St. Patrick's Day. California Gov. Pete Wilson, with White House ambitions of his own, joined in this mischief by moving his state's primary to late March. The Republicans held 37 primaries and caucuses, which selected more than 70 percent of the convention delegates, in just five weeks from Feb. 20 to March 26.

Once Gramm dropped out after Iowa, having already lost the Louisiana caucuses that the Texas senator thought he had rigged, Dole was the inevitable nominee. Even though the Bobster stumbled in Iowa and was upended by Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire, Dole was the only remaining candidate who boasted both the financial and organizational resources to compete over this dizzying terrain. Just 11 days after New Hampshire, with news magazines trumpeting Buchanan's petulant populism still on the coffee tables, Dole became the de facto nominee after sweeping the South Carolina primary.

I recall sitting in an impromptu press room set up in a hotel bar in Columbia, S.C., watching Steve Forbes, Lamar!, Buchanan, and Dole debate right before the primary. The four-way face-off was fast-paced, substantive, and revealing -- the kind of event that cried out for a month of sequels. Then, whap, the race was over. When politics outruns even the CNN-style 24-hour news cycle, there is no longer time for reporters to etch delicate candidate portraits, delve deeply into campaign issues, or muse on the political diversity of America. All I managed after New Hampshire were a few hasty columns on the Republicans written on my lap on a campaign plane flying between Who-Can-Remember and God-Knows-Where.

After two decades of trying to live out my childhood Teddy White fantasies, I am sadly accustomed to a cynical political culture that drains content out of campaigns for the voters and the press. But the stacked deck of the breathless primary schedule is worse -- it destroys the logic of letting the voters, rather than the party leaders, select the nominee. As Larry Sabato writes in Toward the Millennium, a collection of essays he edited on the 1996 campaign, "Front-loading amplified the advantages of the front-runner, leaving little time for his opponents to regroup after the inevitable setbacks." Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire performed their proper function by highlighting Dole's weaknesses as a candidate, but the blink-and-it's-over calendar then deprived the GOP of an alternative.

This quadrennial March Madness is particularly cruel to underfunded underdogs because it eliminates what political lingo calls "the reload factor." When a broke but determined Gary Hart stunned the touts in 1984 with a stretch-run victory in New Hampshire, he was able to turn this media acclaim and momentum into campaign cash that fueled his insurgency until the Democratic convention. Had Lamar Alexander, plaid shirt and all, been the surprise 1996 victor in New Hampshire (he finished third in a closely packed field), he wouldn't have even had time to cash the post-primary checks before he was driven out of the race. Under the rules that prevailed in 1996, a candidate needs to raise upwards of $30 million before New Hampshire to have a chance of holding his arms aloft in triumph at his party's convention.

Granted, there is no reason beyond inertia, a never to be underestimated force in politics, why the primary timetable in 2000 must be modeled after the 1996 GOP demolition derby. While nominating Dole amid the syncopated sound-bits in San Diego, the Republicans belatedly conceded the error of their ways by awarding bonus delegates in 2000 to states that hold primaries and caucuses after April 1. A few states have already wisely sounded retreat -- Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California among them. (The situation in California is muddled by its bizarre new open-primary law, which may force the state to choose its delegates by the old-fashioned convention system)

But this small outburst of scheduling sanity is tempered by the irresistible pay-attention-to-us boosterism of states neglected by fly-over primary campaigns. Four small Western states (Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada) recently formed a task force to set up a new regional primary in (guess when?) early March, and Arizona and Colorado may join this home-on-the-range alliance. Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt reflected the pressures of front-load fever when he said, "As a function of circumstances, the West has been left out of picking the leader of the free world." Adding to the fast-forward frenzy is the likelihood that politicians will move up primaries in a few states for tactical advantage, as Al D'Amato did last time for Dole in New York. D'Amato was, in fact, such a shameless string-puller that no other Republican was even allowed on the Soviet-style primary ballot.

The two national parties could, in theory, create an orderly sequence of primaries by either enacting explicit rules or simply pressuring governors and state legislatures to fall in line. But the Democrats' lack of interest in helping create a rational primary calendar is a signal that the fix is in for Gore in 2000 -- and like it or lump it, Bill Bradley, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, and Paul Wellstone.

President Clinton, piously justifying his unrepentant political buckraking last fall, declared, "I have always been for changing the system. I'm just not for unilateral disarmament. " GOP Chairman Jim Nicholson has frequently used the same hackneyed Cold War imagery to explain his party's unrelenting opposition to the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill. Reforming the presidential primary system is an easy way to lessen the big-money arms race in politics without forcing either party to forsake any partisan advantage. It needs neither congressional legislation nor an FCC ruling. All it requires is for both parties to briefly forsake their habitual cynicism in the name of giving the voters a true voice in selecting the presidential nominees in 2000.

Walter Shapiro, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, is a political columnist for USA Today.
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Title Annotation:presidential races in 2000
Author:Shapiro, Walter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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