First it was Super Tuesday. Then it became "Titanic Tuesday." Now, under a change that will move the country even closer toward the establishment of a national primary, Democrats from as many as 48 states could wind up selecting their party's nominee for president in 2004 on a single day.
Tomorrow, the Democratic Party is expected to approve a rule change that would allow all states to hold their primary elections as early as Feb. 3, while letting Iowa and New Hampshire maintain their early-battleground status with contests in mid- to late January. Many states are expected to adopt this new date, in an effort to ensure their voters have a say in the nomination process, and to try to draw the attention of candidates and the media.
The party hopes the new schedule will put their eventual nominee in a stronger position to challenge President Bush, by avoiding a long and costly primary season.
But critics see the change as part of a larger trend that is undermining the original purpose of primary elections - to move the selection of candidates out of political backrooms and into the hands of voters, by letting Americans slowly get to know candidates as they work their way through different regions.
Instead, the new schedule could make it even harder for lesser-known and not-as-well-financed candidates to win the nomination, since they will have to compete right away in big, expensive media markets. As a result, critics say the selection of presidential candidates is once again becoming the purview of party leaders and high-rolling donors, rather than the people.
"We're evolving to a system where we have two exhibition games in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then we have the World Series, without the intervening games to decide the champ," says Emmett Buell, a political scientist at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
The move toward an unofficial national primary began with the creation of Super Tuesday in 1988, when a group of Southern states agreed to hold their contests on the same day, in an effort to increase their influence on the nominating process.
During the 2000 campaign, a number of big states, including California, New York, and Ohio, moved their primaries up to March 7 - which became known as Titanic Tuesday. As a result, states with later contests had even less impact than they had had in previous election cycles.
This leads some analysts to argue that the Democrats' plan couldn't make the system any worse - and might actually make it better, by giving voters in more states the chance to see their votes count. "I'm not convinced that a super-front-loaded primary system would in fact be detrimental," says Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University and a former Democratic consultant.
Indeed, a CBS News poll taken at the end of the 2000 primary season found that 75 percent of voters would prefer a national primary to the current system.
But while voters in states with late primaries may have felt disenfranchised, critics see another problem with the new schedule: Voters may have almost no time to make an informed decision. Studies show that most voters don't pay much attention to the campaign until the New Hampshire primary. And under the Democrats' plan, most primaries could come just one week later.
"If you want an informed outcome, you've got to structure the campaign in a way that gives people time to think," says Tom Patterson, director of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Mr. Patterson also argues that the new schedule could cost the party in lost media coverage, since a spirited primary contest tends to draw lots of press, as was seen in the battle between Mr. Bush and Sen. John McCain. They were "on the evening news night after night - you can buy a lot of advertising and not get that kind of exposure," he says.
Democratic officials argue that the extensive coverage given to McCain and Bush was partly a result of the fact that the GOP held a series of primaries in February, while the Democrats were forced to wait until March - a scenario they don't want to repeat in 2004.
"The big story was what was happening with George Bush and John McCain, and the Democrats were just out of the story, because there was nothing happening on the Democratic side," says Kathy Sullivan, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chair.
But some observers point out that this situation would be highly unlikely to occur in 2004, since Bush probably won't face a significant primary challenge.
"They can't use us as an excuse," says former GOP Sen. Bill Brock. Before the 2000 GOP convention, Mr. Brock led a panel that proposed a primary system in which small states would go first and big ones last. But the Bush campaign decided the plan was too controversial, and it was put on hold.
Brock believes the Democrats are making a mistake. "There are some terrific people in the party who may not be very well known," he says. "And if they're not well known now, they're not going to get well known, because the process won't allow it."