Long before election day, a small group of key players anoints the Republican and Democratic candidates who will be allowed to run for President. Cigar-chomping bosses in smoke-filled rooms? No. The choice is really made by 400,000 activists who turn out for Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary.
Candidates know what the endorsements of these tiny states are worth. They camp out for months -- Democrats John Kerry and Howard Dean each spent more than 70 days in Iowa. They pander with abandon, swearing fealty to farm supports, ethanol subsidies, a pristine environment, and entitlements for the elderly.
Lost in the hustle are the voices of the other 98.5% of Americans -- and the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire don't look much like America. Fewer than 60% of their residents live in urban areas (vs. 83% nationally). And they have an enormous percentage of white citizens: 92.6% for Iowa, 95.1% for New Hampshire.
In a desperate bid to have some say in picking nominees, other states since 1976 have moved up their primary schedules. This year, 10 states -- including California and New York -- jammed their contests all the way up to Mar. 2. But the gatekeeper states protect their privileged status: In 2004, New Hampshire voted on Jan. 27, a month earlier than in 1984.
Political pros call it front-loading -- a mad scramble to pick nominees in a four- or five-week flurry. This year, Senator Kerry was effectively anointed when the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary sounded the death knell for former Vermont Governor Dean's hopes. From Iowa to Wisconsin, the selection took all of 29 days and involved just 16 states with a mere 22% of the U.S. population. The Mar. 2 votes in California and New York -- and in Texas and Florida on Mar. 9 -- meant zip. No wonder primary turnout keeps sinking: In 2000, with both parties' nominations up for grabs, only 17.7% of eligible voters cast a primary ballot.
The crunched calendar is a curse for politicians, too. Hopefuls spend months touring county fairs and choking down pancake breakfasts as they try to catch the Big Mo. In that frenzied, unforgiving atmosphere, one misstep -- or unnerving scream -- can be fatal. And front-loading "allows people with a lot of money and national recognition to almost preempt the process," says William E. Brock, who chaired a GOP task force that recommended a revised primary calendar in 2000. "We need a more competitive selection process that involves a lot less money and a lot more participation."
That means spreading out the primaries. The first contests ought to be held in early March and the last in early June. The schedule should include periodic weeks off, so candidates can recharge and regroup. A longer contest would give contenders more time to test ideas and build coalitions. And there's nothing like a horse race to keep voters involved.
To hold down expenses and give more candidates a chance to be heard, the calendar could start with small states and New Hampshire-style retail politicking -- though not necessarily in New Hampshire. Brock's commission backed a system in which the 13 smallest states would vote in March, followed by the next-largest 12 in April, and so on until the 12 biggest voted in June. With 60% of delegates up for grabs in the final round, a candidate couldn't get a mathematical lock on the nomination before Memorial Day. But in modern politics, delegate counts don't matter as much as momentum and money. That plan would still let a front-runner drive out opponents long before facing big-state voters.
A better system would use a lottery to assign dates. The 25 smallest states would be allowed to draw for perhaps 10 slots in March. All other states would be eligible for primary dates in April, May, and June. The goal: returning to the pattern of 1960 through 1976, when states accounting for half the population held their contests in mid-May or later. That would boost the odds of a lively campaign into summer, leading up to the party conventions.
What are the chances for reform? The key ingredient, backers say, is an open race for the White House, so there's no incumbent with a stake in the current system and neither party fears a disadvantage from changing the calendar. If President Bush is reelected, 2008 would be just such a year.