This weekend the Democratic Party took a major step towards revolutionizing presidential campaigns. The party's presidential nomination commission voted to add at least two states to the first stage of the 2008 Primary.
That would be a huge change, because Iowa and New Hampshire have dominated the process for decades. It would be a great change, because no two states can completely represent the party or the country. The process that selects the most powerful person in America should empower as many states and voters as possible.
The commission's proposed reform should diversify and lengthen the primary process, which has been getting shorter every cycle since 1980. That trend, often called "front-loading," reduces the number of consequential primaries and voters, the length of the campaigns, and the potential for insurgent candidates to get a fair shot. According to Brookings fellow Anthony Corrado, today's front-loaded system is "antithetical" to the goals of "meaningful participation" and fair representation that the system was originally designed to achieve. (Brookings published "The Front Loading Problem in Presidential Nominations," a 2003 study that reflects many of the issues before the Democratic nomination commission.)
Yet Iowa and New Hampshire have held onto their positions because of their well-deserved reputation for providing accessible, "retail" opportunities for citizens to vet candidates. Their small scale and experienced electorates typically prioritize ability and leadership over fundraising and hype. I served on the Kerry Campaign's Iowa Caucus staff, and I found Iowans to be knowledgeable and serious about their responsibility to judge the candidates. Proponents of the current system correctly argue that the campaign has to begin somewhere, and a seasoned electorate in a small state demands more substantive campaigning than a large state dominated by paid advertising and media hype.
The commission's new proposal addresses that issue by preserving Iowa and New Hampshire's early status -- while adding other states to the mix. The new states can hold one primary per day, instead of sharing their primary dates with several states (as in the front-loaded process). Such early, stand-alone contests could be as influential as Iowa and New Hampshire and give voters more time to tune in and evaluate the candidates.
Which states will get the honor? The commission will debate that at their final meeting in December. So far, many Democrats have argued for more ethnically diverse states. Professor Spencer Overton, a voting rights expert and member of the commission, wrote on the blog blackprof.com that this weekend's meeting suggested "diversity will be a major factor" in selecting the new states. It should be -- as the Washington Post noted this weekend, the two states are "racially unrepresentative."
After the commission makes its recommendations in December, it's up to Howard Dean and the DNC to take action. Back in July, a DNC spokesperson said the party would support a fair system that produced the "strongest possible nominee." The commission is definitely recommending fair reforms, now it's up to the DNC to implement them.