The Michigan-New Hampshire Date Race

A presidential campaign should be like a good spaghetti sauce:  stirred and simmered for hours, spices added from time to time and cooked together into a great flavor and consistency that can last through the election.  This year, thanks to some over-anxious state officials, we’re being served the political equivalent of Hamberger Helper.

In 2000, we had to wait for months until the Supreme Court sorted out the Florida vote to find George Bush was elected.  Now — almost a year before the real election — the courts are already involved.  Last week a Michigan court declared unconstitutional a new state law setting the Michigan primary for January 15.  States are competing for the early primary dates like nations compete for the Olympics.  All that’s missing (we hope) is the bribes and multi-million dollar graft that usually accompany the International Olympic Committee’s boondoggles to the capitals of the world in their “selection” tours. 

We were just reminded of that by Sen. John McCain’s mom.  Taking a not-so-subtle shot at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 95-year old Mrs. McCain reminded us of the scandal-laced 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and Romney’s Mormon faith, saying, “As far as the Salt Lake City thing, he’s a Mormon and the Mormons of Salt Lake City had caused that scandal.”  But Romney was brought in to clean up the mess and did.  For disparaging Mormons, Mrs. McCain apologized to her son but not to Mr. Romney.  Who will apologize to the candidates and voters who are trying to deal with the mess of the primary season? 

This could be the one primary season when the campaign managers earn their pay. Planning — where to be, how much to spend on ads and when, which endorsements to seek and how to choreograph the media kabuki dance — is made all but impossible by the states’ shenanigans on scheduling the primaries.

In fifty-one days Iowans will caucus and deliver, what?  Iowa’s results are likely to be much less significant than in previous years because other states will either vote before Iowa (New Hampshire is still toying with a December primary) or so soon after that the candidates may not be able to react to the Iowa results.

So far, we know the January 3 date for the Iowa caucuses but not the date of either the New Hampshire or Michigan primaries, because those states are playing chicken to see which can compete with Iowa. Each wants to beat the other to seize the bragging rights (and the ad revenue and publicity) that the earliest primary brings.  New Hampshire’s canny Bill Gardner was quoted in yesterday’s Union Leader, saying “We will just wait until there is some resolution of this” [in Michigan].  By the end of this week, Gardner will likely set the New Hampshire date.  Which could be as early as mid-December to maintain New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” claim to fame. 

In earlier years candidates had the time to plan their reactions to Iowa and New Hampshire in the primaries that followed.  But not this year.

It takes days to get accurate results, parse them into revisions of message and then into speeches, interviews and new campaign commercials. If there’s enough time to do that, voters are given insight into the candidates’ ability to make judgments about mistakes.  But how can candidates exercise judgment and apply the lessons learned when the schedule is so compressed?  Those, like Sen. Clinton, who depend more on focus groups than principle, will be thrown into a frenzy of analysis, guessing and rewriting to either recover from poor showings or capitalize on good ones. The result will almost certainly be a muddle of diluted messages that will only serve to amuse the pundits.

The muddle will be thickened by the national parties’ reactions to the primary mess.  Some states, such as Florida and New Hampshire, have already been threatened with the loss of accreditation of delegates at the national conventions.  If the parties carry through on these threats (which is something I’d bet big money against) the conventions could turn lively. 

But the candidates can’t afford that.  A presumptive nominee has a tremendous advantage in fundraising and publicity going into a convention.   There is considerable danger — especially to the eventual Republican nominee — in having even a hint of doubt going into a late-summer convention.  For that reason alone, the national parties will back down.  What the states decide, the parties will accept.  Which brings us back to the ongoing food fight among the states.

New Hampshire used to be a “must win” state.  It helped Eisenhower in 1952, and was the launching pad for Carter, Reagan and Bush 41.  But a big win for John McCain in 2000 didn’t prevent Bush 43 from becoming 43.  Instead of regaining “must win” status by playing games, New Hampshire may join Iowa and others in the “kinda like to win” category.  Michigan wants to be a “must win” state, but will any state have that status in this election?

It’s not very likely.  The string of cattle-call debates goes on and on without winnowing the field because voters aren’t able to apply the force of real votes. The candidates will have to keep shuffling between states eating rubber chicken, kissing sniffly kids and smiling increasingly-strained smiles.  They’ll catch cold, suffer the early stages of vitamin deficiencies and their campaign managers will grow accustomed to correcting misstatements of their sleep-deprived charges. 

Tempers will flare (will Hillary have a Howard Dean moment?), schedules will be kept in pencil and the early primary rush will not accomplish the purpose it should serve: to help sort out the candidates.  There is no reason for the also-rans to stop running when they can still afford to fly around and get a bit of television time from the equally abused pundits and reporters.  Those who have no chance to achieve their party’s nomination will stay in the race at least until the February 8 “Super Tuesday” results are in.  Every state among the 23 or so that will vote on that Tuesday will be a “must win” state.  And so none will be.  Unless. 

What if, instead of competing, New Hampshire and Michigan agreed to have their primaries on the same date, say two weeks after the Iowa caucuses?  Iowa could be relegated to the “kinda like to win” rank. South Carolina, which will hold its primary a few days later, would be overshadowed.  New Hampshire and Michigan — a “super Tuesday” in miniature — would be the focus of international attention. 

There is method in this madness.  State pairings spread out in the primary season could restore value to the voters’ choices.  Spread out every fortnight — it’s not too late to break up “Tsunami Tuesday” — they would help cull the herd while enhancing their states’ influence. 

Would this impose more wear and tear on the candidates?  Let’s put it this way:  those who condemn themselves to constant air travel these days are in no position to gripe about a few more places to go.