01/24/2008 07:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Better Way to Conduct Presidential Primaries

A Better Way to Conduct Presidential Primaries

The system for choosing presidential candidates is broken. Here's how to fix it

by Steven Hill
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, January 20, 2008, page G - 1

In the aftermath of Iowa and New Hampshire, many Americans have begun to question the nominating process itself. Are two tiny rural states really the place to kick off an all-important national selection process?

According to a survey conducted for the Associated Press and Yahoo News, fewer than 1 in 5 voters favors Iowa and New Hampshire's "favored state" status, and nearly 80 percent would rather see other states get their chance at the front of the line.

Officials in those other states fear that if they hold their presidential primary too late in the season, the nominations will have been decided and their state will be irrelevant. That has led to states' leapfrogging each other to go first, pushing the start date ever closer to New Year's Day.

Despite threats from the Democratic Party, delegate-rich Michigan and Florida moved their primaries up to Jan. 15 and Jan. 29 to ensure their states wouldn't be ignored. Leapfrogging to avoid irrelevancy has been a problem in every presidential contest, but this year it finally resulted in a colossal spasm of absurdity - Super Duper Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, nearly two dozen states are scheduled to hold their primaries or caucuses on a single day. These include some of our most populous states, such as California, New York, Illinois, Georgia, New Jersey and others. Together these two dozen states hold enough delegates to nearly decide the presidential nomination all by themselves.

Having a single primary day with so many states should be called Super Stupid Tuesday, because it gives great advantage to those candidates with the most campaign cash and name recognition to compete in so many states simultaneously. It creates a virtual wealth primary in which new presidential faces have been quickly eliminated.

In addition, states with primaries after Feb. 5 - including Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia and others - may find that the nomination is already decided before they even have a chance to vote. Even if it isn't, the mere possibility that it could be will lead some of those states to leapfrog in the 2012 presidential election, continuing the anarchy.

The current system is utterly broken, and more and more people realize it. Fortunately, there are better ways.

One way that has been proposed by the National Association of Secretaries of State would be to hold a series of regional primaries. The United States would be divided into four regions - the Northeast, Midwest, West and South - having roughly the same number of votes in the Electoral College. Each region would hold its primary a month apart, and from election to election would rotate which region goes first.

This plan is better than what we do now, since it eliminates frontloading, and might reduce campaign expenditures by enabling regionally focused spending. It also would allow some emphasis on regional issues, which could be attractive as long as those regional issues don't eclipse discussion of national issues.

But a regional plan still makes it possible for the nomination to be decided early in the process, depending on which regions went first and second, and the other regions once again would be left out. In addition, the biggest states in each region would dominate, which not only would be a disadvantage to the smaller states in the region but also may mean the end of the type of "retail politicking" that we see in Iowa and New Hampshire, that kind of face-to-face handshaking by the candidates.

Some also have criticized the regional plan for encouraging what is called "homesteading," whereby candidates would time their presidential bids to a rotating primary calendar that is to their advantage. Strong regionally based candidates who don't represent the national interest might prevail over several other regionally based candidates in the winner-take-all presidential contest, which was a problem in the pre-Civil War era.

While regional primaries would be better than what we have now, there is an even better solution that would allow the maximum number of states -- little states, big states and medium-size states -- to be relevant to the presidential nomination process.

This national plan would establish a total of four primary days, each held a month apart. The states would be grouped into four clusters, by population. The smallest 12 states, plus federal territories and Washington, D.C., would vote first, followed by the next smallest 13 states, then the 13 medium-size states, and finally the 12 largest states. These four primaries would begin in March and end in June.

This national plan has a number of advantages over the current anarchy or a regional primary plan. First, by starting with small states and moving on to ever larger ones, it gives all states an influential role and allows more voters an effective voice. The big states would vote last, but since they hold the most delegates, the nominations probably wouldn't be decided until the final day.

Second, it accomplishes the recommendation of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that the nominating process should "remain competitive for a longer period of time in order to give the public a greater opportunity to engage the campaign and to become informed about the candidates." It also creates a shorter interval between the primary season and the nominating conventions in the summer, helping to sustain the public's level of engagement.

Finally, this plan preserves door-to-door, retail politicking in small states early in the season, and gives lesser-known or underfunded candidates a chance to catch fire. Party members would have more time to consider whether early front-runners best represent their party's chances of winning, and late-blooming candidates would have a chance to bounce back from early defeats.

In 2000, the Republican National Committee nearly adopted just such a plan. It's a pity they didn't, since it would have led us out of the current dead end. Both major parties are planning to review their party's nomination procedures, and they should put in place a nationally coordinated presidential primary plan by 2012. The nomination of our nation's chief executive is too important to leave to such a chaotic, leapfrogging, state-by-state process.

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" (