January 20, 2004

Primary system fails America

So, who's going to be the victor in this close Democratic primary season? Will it be Howard Dean, with his anti-war, anti-Beltway straight talking? Will it be late bloomer Wesley Clark, whose centrist politics and storied military career might assuage Americans' fears in this post-9/11 age? Or can seasoned Senate veteran Dick Gephardt finally get the White House bid denied to him back in 1988?

I can't answer those questions, but I can say one thing for certain: U of C students won't have a damn to say in who's going to be the Democratic candidate for the 2004 presidential election.

The Illinois primary is on March 16, two weeks after Super Tuesday (the day more states have their primaries on than any other) and five weeks after the Super Seven primaries, which feature influential states such as Missouri and South Carolina. By the time March 16 arrives, the media will have crowned a victor, the other candidates will have dropped out, and Chicago students will be unwilling to vote in the primaries because it seems the choice has already been made for them by New Hampshire, Iowa, and 25 other states.

Is this right, punishing voters for not living in states with earlier primaries? The general goal of these presidential primaries and caucuses is to win the nomination by collecting the pledges from a majority of the delegates to the parties' national conventions held during the summer. In most cases, the candidate who wins the state's primary has then the support of that state's delegates to the national convention. The problem with the primary system as it stands now is that the media and Washington watchdogs put too much emphasis on the states with earlier primaries, so that by the time other states hold their primaries, candidates who aren't frontrunners have dropped out either because of poor polling or apparent lack of support.

Presidential bid-seekers also have poured exorbitant amounts of money and time into states like New Hampshire and Iowa¬óstates with a small number of votes in the Electoral College. These states should theoretically be insignificant, yet they exercise disproportionate influence over the electoral process. Though these early primaries may show weaknesses of some candidates and create momentum for others, they ultimately rob other states of their say by essentially saying, "We voted for this guy. All others should follow suit or else your vote will be wasted on a loser." This is completely incorrect seeing as how the last two presidents placed second in the 2000 New Hampshire primaries and third in the 1992 Iowa caucus respectively. If other candidates had been immediately discouraged, we could have had Pat Buchanan as president.

Because of this, I'm guessing that Clark, Dean, John Kerry, and maybe Gephardt will survive New Hampshire and continue into the spring primaries. Joe Liebermann, John Edwards, and Al Sharpton should be seeing their days as numbered. And unless the long-lost supporters of Dennis Kucinich finally wake up from their thousand-year slumber, he might as well start packing his bags now.

Back in the days of the National Convention, when the University of Chicago had a winning Big 10 football team, each political party held its own state caucus or convention that would then send delegates to vote for a presidential candidate. It wasn't until the 1920s that states began instituting a direct presidential primary election in which voters expressed a preference for a particular candidate whom delegates would be obligated to support through a ballot at the convention. With the rise of primaries, the national convention was less an event to select a ticket and more a ceremony for showcasing the winning candidate's platform. The last "exciting" national convention was the 1976 Republican Convention when Gerald Ford narrowly kept the nomination away from Ronald Reagan.

Stepping back to the days of indirectly electing a nominee for president is outdated and unequal. However, the current system is unfair to states such as Illinois, which have relatively late primaries. Chicago voters might not have their say in a close, contentious primary because one candidate may have dropped out by then. What can remedy this? A solution could be a national primary, or at least setting primaries in a shorter amount of time rather than the five-month period from the first primary (New Hampshire) to the last primary (New Jersey). Or just to appease U of C students, move the Illinois primary up in the calendar.