Second thoughts on Super Tuesday

Parties explore new ways to bundle primaries to avoid front-loaded system.

While Al Gore and George W. Bush rev their engines for a rambunctious presidential race, their respective parties are looking in the rearview mirror.

Democrats and Republicans alike are dissecting this year's primaries as they consider sweeping reform in how presidential nominees are picked - an unprecedented attempt to configure a nationally coordinated system.

Their goal: to make more democratic the current, chaotic system in which early primaries decide the two parties' nominees before many states even dust off their ballot boxes.

"We've heard a lot of frustration from people who feel their states and constituents have been disenfranchised in the process," says James Roosevelt, who chairs the Democratic committee charged with reform.

The current system for picking presidential nominees has largely evolved without a coherent plan. Primaries were introduced mid-century to let a wide swath of party members choose nominees, rather than party bosses in semi-mythical smoke-filled rooms.

But then the law of unintended consequences kicked in. States have seen the advantage of holding their primaries while there's still ice on the ground: They realize that if they pick an early date, they have more influence over who is selected.

So this year, the schedule of primaries was so front-loaded that both parties' nominees were decided before the daffodils bloomed. This meant that the candidates needed a formidable supply of campaign money and organizational support to win, since there wasn't time to campaign aggressively in each state holding an early primary.

"The cost of running in a nationwide system of primaries is so large that the support of key national groups and party insiders is probably more important now than it might have been before we reformed the system to make primaries so important," says Leslie Lenkowsky, a political scientist at Indiana and Purdue Universities, in Indianapolis.

In other words, it's a smoke-filled-room redux.

Moreover, that pattern is likely to accelerate in the next election cycle, barring a change. "If we stay the way we're going, we'll pretty much have a national primary by 2004," said Bill Brock, who is leading Republican efforts at reform, at a recent Monitor breakfast.

Critics of the current system - who are many - say that it robs late-primary states of a voice in the selection process and vetoes qualified candidates who lack a national fund-raising network.

Thus Messrs. Brock and Roosevelt are leading parallel efforts to scrap the system entirely. Among the top ideas to replace it:

Start small. A population-based system would allow the 10 smallest states to hold their primaries first, followed by the next 10 smallest, and so on, until a final set of primaries that includes the biggest states.

"The logic is that there can be real retail politics. You're letting candidates who are less well-known prove themselves in a place where it's easier to campaign," said Brock.

The objections: Large states like California may not take kindly to a system that puts them last in line permanently. Also, the smallest states tend to have small minority populations, which critics say would leave minorities without enough say in picking party nominees.

Regional rotation. All states in a region would hold primaries on the same day, with a different region leading off in each election cycle. "It gives each region an opportunity to be part of the process," says Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin.

Opponents of the plan say it would still preclude candidates without name recognition and fund-raising ability from getting a toehold.

A time-zone plan. A similar plan would categorize the country by time zone instead of region, in an effort to avoid favoring candidates from whichever region goes first in a given year.

Others prefer more limited reforms, such as stricter rules on when a state may hold primaries.

There remain sizable hurdles to implementing change. Not least is that the states, not parties, control when primaries will be held. One lever the parties hold is control of the number of delegates - which could be used as incentives to whip states into line. This year, Democrats wielded this power to keep all but two primaries on March 7 or later.

Still others argue that the current system works pretty well, after all. "It's one of the great accomplishments of American politics that to run for president, you need some national recognition," says Dr. Lenkowsky. "We would hope the people we choose for president would have some experience on the national stage."

One thing everyone does agree on: Any change will probably have some unintended consequences.

"Whatever we do, we're all going to be sorry," jokes Brock.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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