A better way to select our presidential nominees

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As voters in Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire's primary focus on the critical role they are about to play in selecting the next president of the United States, it's clear something has gone terribly wrong in the American political system.

When primaries were introduced in the early 1900s, they sought to break the hold of political kingmakers. Yet, in a potentially disastrous distortion of a reform that aimed to make the nominating process more democratic, we've created a system that is closed and unresponsive.

I propose a dramatic change: three orderly, sequenced delegate-selection tests organized by time-zones. This will restore order and fairness and protect American politics from future catastrophes.

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As things stand, a de facto national primary will select both parties' presidential nominees on March 7 - before the American people are remotely engaged in the issues and candidates. On that day alone, 17 states will select 1,458 delegates to the Democratic national convention - 41 percent of the publicly elected delegates. This virtual national primary is the bizarre denouement of a move to "frontload" the delegate-selection calendar that has recast the criteria for who can be president.

For those who believe the presidential nominating process should be a rational series of contests that allow candidates without nationally recognized names, organizations, and fund-raising bases to compete, the 2000 system is a fiasco. "Winnowing" that once began in New Hampshire and progressed as the process moved west, now occurs invisibly before the first voter has spoken.

The most-important variable to becoming president currently seems to be $40 million in the bank. Witness George W. Bush's financial coronation by his party in 1999, squashing the promising campaigns of Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle, and Lamar Alexander early on.

In 1972, the Democrats crossed the midpoint in delegate selection in mid-May, in 1984 in mid-April, and in 1996 by mid-March. In 2000, the process all but begins and ends on March 7. This sets up a frenetic nominating process and an interminable eight-month general-election campaign that will likely depress the already-low voter turnout.

The state officials who plan primaries, and the Democratic and Republican parties, seem ready to make fundamental changes for 2004.

They should consider this simple solution: three delegate-selection rounds of primaries and caucuses grouped by time-zones, preceded by two representative preliminary contests.

Iowa and New Hampshire have performed well, and their unique "retail" role in presidential nominations should be retained. But to ensure that regions outside the Midwest and Northeast also have significant "level playing field" tests, the respective Democratic and Republican state parties of the West and South would select a caucus and primary state to coincide with Iowa and New Hampshire contests.

This "level playing field quartet" would be followed three, six, and nine weeks later by the three time-zone contests. The order would be selected by lottery and rotate every four years. The system would begin in mid-March with caucuses in Iowa and the other caucus state joined with it.

Eight days later, New Hampshire and the other primary state paired with it would hold their elections. By mid-April, we'd have the first time-zone-organized major primary, followed by the second at the beginning of the second week of May, and the final one around June 1. This system would allow all candidates, whether they are well-known or not and well-funded or not, to compete equally.

To address the increasingly serious issue of candidates exhausting their financial resources early in the process, Congress should consider amending the Federal Election Campaign Act to set up aggregate spending limits for each time-zone grouping. The aggregate limits would be based on the percentage of publicly elected delegates that would be selected in each of these three rounds, to prevent candidates from totally "frontloading" the spending in their campaigns.

Each of these north-south time-zone processes would cut across regional, ideological, and political cultures, and thus would not give an advantage to a particular region that happens to vote first, as occurs in a more-traditional regional primary grouping.

The process would fairly test candidates' electability through a process perceived as legitimate. In this way, both order and democracy can be preserved, and two unanticipated outcomes of the current chaos would be fixed: This system wouldn't be limited to the well-known and well-funded, and it wouldn't allow a fanatic to catch an early populist wave and crest over in the delegate-selection process before credentials were fully reviewed.

We have unwittingly created a system tailor-made for candidates who are either very rich or very wacky. It's now time we created a system for the rest of America.

*Mark A. Siegel was executive director of the Democratic National Committee from 1972 to 1977. He is now a professor of political management at George Washington University.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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