If past history is any guide, then by all reckonings the presidential election campaign of 1984 should be starting up in earnest about two years from now -- in 1983. And that, we think the American public would agree, is too early. So it is with an admitted degree of surprise, and a hefty amount of support, that we find Republican national chairman Richard Richard's call for reforming the campaign a step in the right direction.
Only the most inveterate political enthusiast, we suspect, would find the present grueling and cumbersome nominating process anything less than overly long and perhaps unnecessarily costly. The system, involving something like 35 separate primaries, does have some benefits, mainly in that it very quickly tests the stamina and acumen required for late 20th-century presidents.
But Mr. Richards argues that the duration of the campaign is now far too long , and that too much money is spent by independent campaign committees. Mr. Richards would shorten the election process and also curb the "independent expenditure system."
We rather imagine the folks at Common Cause and other citizen-action groups are somewhat startled at the reasonableness of the conservative Mr. Richard's conclusions. And while some reformers, who have long called for the same things , may cynically believe that Mr. Richard's endorsement of campaign reform may as much represent the position of a party in power that wants to help thwart early efforts to unseat it, we choose to believe that it represents a conclusion based on Mr. Richard's own experience at the state level.
Mr. Richards will shortly appoint a special committee to look into the election system. The Democratic Party, and Congress, might be well served by emulating the Republicans on this issue. Among issues deserving special attention are these:
* Should the US adopt regional primaries of some type, or another method of shortening the nomination process, such as coordinated state party conventions?
* Should the current $1,000 limitation on individual contributions be kept the same, or increased? The amount has not changed since 1974. And what about the many independent action groups, and individuals, who altogether raised and disbursed millions of dollars in the last election? Are any controls needed?
* Should, in fact, controls be imposed on independent groups, which tend to support GOP candidates, without also imposing new controls on unions which, (it is no secret), tend to support Democrats?
* What about forecasting election results before polls have closed? In Canada, results from the eastern region cannot be reported in other regions of that nation until their own local polls have closed. One election expert believes that as many as 280,000 voters may have stayed away from the California polls in the 1980 election because of early television forecasting of the Reagan victory. Yet, that could have meant a shift of something like 6,500 votes in each congressional district, where local contests were often close. In 1980 the forecasting may have worked in favor of Republicans. But the opposite could conceivably be the case in future elections.
The US presidential election campaign is too long. Mr. Richards deserves plaudits for proposing reform at this time, well before the next campaign is underway, and changes would have to be deferred until -- would you believe? -- the election of 1988.