Super Duper Déjà Vu

Following a strong showing by all but one of the likely Republican presidential candidates at the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference, are voters ready for the horse race to begin? Campaign signs, t-shirts, buttons, volunteers, Mitt mitts and anti-Mitt flip-flops littered the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Even though many voters are waiting for a dark horse to hitch their wagon to, the prevailing attitudes at CPAC were optimism and excitement for the election season. CPAC 2008 is set for February 7-9, just days after “Super Duper Tuesday.”

Each election cycle, pundits whine that it’s beginning earlier than ever before. Last week the Wall Street Journal’s Brian Carney morosely declared, “The presidential primary system as we have known it for 35 years is dead.”

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave way to California’s primary to be held February 5, 2008, along with at least a dozen other states, news networks were shocked by the ostentatious Super-Duper Tuesday. These are the same networks that already had their “DECISION 2008!” graphics ready months ago. Some pundits say Super-Duper Tuesday hurts the New Hampshire and Iowa caucuses by taking the focus off of them and shifting it to what could be the largest percentage of delegates likely to vote on February 5. Others lament that it could give New Hampshire and Iowa more importance. “But as the law of unintended consequences is wont to do, all this may actually increase, rather than decrease, the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire (and perhaps Nevada and South Carolina), because winners in those states would have the only momentum heading into Super Duper Tuesday,” writes Philip J. Trounstine in the Los Angeles Times.

California’s cutting in line may be overshadowed by the fact that many of the state’s voters didn’t pay much attention to the 2000 primaries. Despite being held on a Sorta Super Tuesday in early March with 13 other states, the Los Angeles Times reported on February 7, 2000 that the “primary is a non-issue for Californians.” Much like over-hyped award shows are a “non-issue” to the rest of the country.

Let’s put the dim-witted California voters aside for a minute and think about the real victims of Super Duper Tuesday: those in the media looking for an original story. Much like the “Christmas has become too commercialized” debate that comes around every year, anxiety about front-loading the primaries is not new. On July 11, 1999, the Associated Press article “California’s March 7 presidential primary sets off multistate scramble” Doug Willis writes, “When California moved its presidential primary from June to March, it started what one election official calls ‘a landslide to the front,’ compressing 24 primaries into six weeks early next year.”

The AP talked to numerous experts who ominously claimed that the packed primaries will have a “profound impact” on the presidential campaign. Professor Arthur Lupia of the University of California-San Diego said, “Fifty years ago, the parties chose their candidates in smoke-filled rooms, and primaries were brought in to open up the process. With these compressed primaries, we’re headed back into those rooms, although they are not smoke-filled any more.”

Then-California Secretary of State Bill Jones said, “I think after this 2000 cycle, a lot of people are going to say, ‘This is not going to work’ because everybody will keep moving up, and where will it end?”

In a January 8, 1996 Baltimore Sun article, “GOP race could be over almost as soon as it starts; Early caucuses, primaries to be key,” it’s the same old pre-primary tagline. “Presidential campaigns seem to drag on forever. Not this year. Despite a large field of candidates, the fight for the Republican nomination could be astonishingly brief — perhaps as short as eight days… So many states have squeezed into the early weeks that most of the delegates will be chosen before the end of March, much earlier than ever before.”

An article in the Austin American-Statesman on October 7, 1995 proclaimed, “Like Christmas lights and tinsel in October, the presidential campaign seems to come earlier each season. The crunch to get ahead, to be first in the nominating process, is compounded by states that are playing a game of me-first. So many have moved their primary dates forward, hoping to have a bigger impact, that 70% of primary voters will have their say by the end of March — four months before the first national convention. By then, the choice of the major parties’ nominees will be obvious.”

Ah, Lexis Nexis — the media’s best friend and worst foe. (As an aside, I must share this gem from the February 26, 1986 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “Is it not remarkable that Arkansas, one of the poorest and smallest states in the country, keeps turning out politicians who are regarded so highly outside its borders, maybe more than inside?”)

Early-stacked primaries are not specific to the 2008 presidential election. The next front page news item is sure to be about too much money being raised by the campaigns. In the mean time, be on the look out for the other typical slow-news-day items like how many calories are in a Frappucinno and whether “this time, Ann Coulter has gone too far.”