Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Secret Straw Poll Plan

Amidst all of the presidential primary reform plans (Regional, American/California, Delaware, National Primary, etc.) and the calls for reform spurred by this wacked-out cycle, I thought I'd offer an alternative. First I should note that I'm not at all convinced that we ought to have presidential primaries, but that's the system we've got and it's not likely to go away entirely.

It seems to me that each of the various plans is geared toward fixing only one or two problems with the current system and maintaining only one or two of the great advantages of the current system. None of them appear to start with a list of objectives and then build a new system around the whole list. Thus, I offer an attempt at such a list.

We want a system that:
  • Allows non-celebrity/multimillionaire candidates to get a real chance on the national stage.
  • Includes some kind of narrowing process, so that voters can get a good look at the 4 or 5 (or fewer) candidates that have earned their way to a real shot at the nomination.
  • Is as representative as possible in choosing the voters that get to take part in the narrowing process.
  • Allows as many voters as possible to take part in the final decision between the 4 or 5 (or fewer) top candidates.
  • Preserves the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire in the process (OK, so we probably don't actually want this, but I seriously doubt the national parties nor the candidates would allow any reform that didn't include this point).
Here's my plan:
  • Step 1: Two small states, chosen at random to represent two of the four regions (West, Midwest, South, Northeast) would hold non-binding primaries (not caucuses) in mid-January, separated by no more than one week from each other. A candidate must achieve a 5% threshold in at least one of these states to avoid being disqualified from future primaries (or at least from future debates). The key here is that the results would not be publicized, except for the lists of those candidates that did and did not meet the threshold. Representatives from each campaign would be able to monitor the process to ensure that no candidate is disqualified arbitrarily. All officials and campaign representatives involved in the tabulating of the results would be forbidden until penalty of law from saying anything about them (other than in court in an attempt to prove that irregularities took place). Why? This step is intended to begin the process of narrowing the candidates to those that are capable of breaking through and scoring at least a pittance of support in small, early states. The results would be kept secret only so that the media would not grab on to the winners of these events as proclaim them the prohibitive front-runners.
  • Step 2: Three small to medium-sized states, chosen at random to represent one of the regions included in Step 1 and the two regions not represented in Step 1, would hold their non-binding primaries (again, not caucuses) in mid-February, now separated by no more than ten days from the first state to the last. The region to be represented in both Step 1 and Step 2 would rotate each four years. A candidate must achieve a 15% threshold in at least one of these states to avoid being disqualified from future primaries (or at least from future debates). Again, the actual results would not be publicized. Only the lists of those candidates that did or did not meet the threshold in any given state would be published. Why? This step would further narrow the fields to those candidates that can bring in a substantial amount of support. However, 15% is not prohibitive for those candidates not included in the media-determined "first tier", especially after several candidates have already been eliminated. Further, the month between Steps 1 and 2 would allow the lesser-known Step 1 survivors to turn their newly acquired legitimacy into dollars and free media. It would also allow for several debates between the narrowed field.
  • Step 3: The 4 DNC-chosen states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) would hold their primaries and caucuses over a three week (roughly) period beginning in early March. Why? Well, I wanted to leave this step out, but Iowa and New Hampshire would never allow it. At best, we can diminish their influence by including the other states. Still, we can take some solace in the idea that these states could shake up a relatively stable race by elevating a candidate or two from "contender" to "front-runner" status. That might keep the race from getting stale and keep voters interested.
  • Step 4: A two-stage national primary (including the four early states) would be held in late April and early May, separated by two weeks. The actual delegate counts would be determined by the second election. Why? The two-stage system would further narrow the field before the final vote. There would be immense pressure on those candidates who survive up until this point, but fail to come anywhere near 1st or 2nd in the first stage to drop out before the second vote is held. Most likely, those candidate who spend most of their resources and still fail to put up a fair showing in the first stage would need little persuasion to throw up the white flag. In this intervening period, deals could be made, supporters of weaker candidates could reconsider their allegiances, and a final debate or two could be held among the 2 or 3 candidates that appear to have a genuine shot at winning on the second election day (or at least of taking enough delegates into a hung convention to have a chance there). Finally, if one candidate wins the first vote overwhelmingly, their party's leaders would likely make a big push to get the other contenders to drop out so that the second vote is a show of party unity heading into the general election.
  • Step 5: The party conventions. If one candidate wins a majority of delegates at the May national primary, the conventions would likely be no different from how they are today. However, my proposed system would almost certainly increase the likelihood of a final delegate count that is divided between three or more candidates. The various campaigns would, of course, scramble to assemble a majority before the conventions take place, but given most state parties' delegate loyalty rules (they tend to apply for the first two ballots) the real fight would happen on the convention floor. Who knows, there might even be an Eric Baker every now and again. Why? One gripe against primaries is that they reduce the influence of party bigwigs, the smoke-filled room types that would never have nominated Reagan nor Clinton. This gripe has several motives behind it, but my favorite is that party strategists would never allow the nomination of a candidate seen as too divisive and unelectable, if only they had that power. Philosophically, it should be acceptable that those who actually run the party have some say in the final determination of the party's nominee. Democratic objections can be overcome by the reality that behind-the-scenes machinations would only come into play in those situations where the primaries have produced a hopelessly divided convention. In other words, the choice of the insiders would only win if the outsiders have not made a clear choice.
I believe that this plan meets all of the above requirements. Lesser-known and poorly funded candidates have multiple chances to become viable. Indeed, if they simply have enough money (and a good enough message) to run a bare bones campaign in just one of the Step 1 states, a candidate can legitimize his campaign by surviving the first "elimination round". One the other hand, the narrowing process would likely knock out the Duncan Hunters, Tom Tancredos, and Chris Dodds (it pains me to put him in this category) of the world who have inflated egos but who fail to make an appealing case for their continued presence in the race. The regional basis of each of the first three rounds ensures some sense of representativeness throughout the narrowing process. The national primaries allow as many voters as possible to take part in the final determining votes for the nominations. Finally, the process maintains Iowa and New Hampshire in the position to take one of the several remaining candidates and elevate them to front-runner status.

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