Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Worst of Both Worlds

As we emerge from the other side of Super Duper Tuesday, we begin to count the dead and the wounded. The most obvious casualty, of course, is Mitt Romney, whose ability to spend millions of dollars without any significant payoff would, in at least that sense, have made him a worthy successor to George W. Bush. Romney, however, squandered his own fortune rather than the country's, so the comparison with Bush is not entirely fair. Regardless, the Mittster's 2008 experience will likely provide a cautionary tale to the next good looking rich guy who thinks he can buy his way from obscurity into the White House.

Yesterday, news arrived that Hillary Clinton's campaign may also be in trouble. The difficulty does not stem from her electoral performance, which was reasonably strong and included victories in Massachusetts and California that blunted Barack Obama's staggering January momentum. Instead, the one-tine odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination finds herself running low on cash. News stories indicate that the New York senator loaned her campaign five million dollars just to get through Super Tuesday and has temporarily stopped paying some key staffers. This puts her at a decided disadvantage against Obama, who apparently raised several million bucks in just the last 48 hours.

There are two reasons to decry the influence of money in presidential campaigns. The first, obviously, is the concern that office holders may consider themselves beholden to the special interest groups that have donated generously to their successful campaigns. Both Obama and John Edwards have attacked Clinton for her willingness to accept money from political action committees, claiming that such funding would create a conflict of interest should she win the White House. Obama is, in that regard, relatively clean; his contributions have primarily come in relatively small increments from private citizens enthusiastic about the candidate and his message.

But there is another reason to be concerned about the role of money in the primary election process. The object of any party's nomination system is to select the strongest and most viable candidate to do battle with the other side in November. It may certainly be the case that, for the Democrats, that person is Barack Obama. But it seems increasingly possible that Obama may wrest the nomination from Clinton almost by default, as her flagging resources increasingly limit her ability to run television commercials and jet back and forth between key primary and caucus states. More than any other candidate, the relatively inexperienced Obama needs to be tested as strongly and relentlessly as possible before he goes up against the GOP attack machine later in the year. Now this may not happen.

One could, of course, argue that Obama's fundraising numbers are themselves a sign of viability and a strong indicator that he would be the superior nominee to take on and defeat the Republicans. There is certainly a grain of truth to that. Nevertheless, a successful candidate needs far more than a small army of generous supporters to win a presidential election. As impressive as Obama's totals may be, they pale in comparison to the amount of money that will be raised and spent in the general election campaign. And if fundraising prowess among the middle class were an accurate barometer of electoral viability, then Ron Paul would have finished in first place somewhere by now.

This has been a primary election year like no other. Not only did everything start sooner (the New Hampshire primary used to take place in February, at the earliest), but the frontloading was far more severe than ever before. Barely a month elapsed between the first caucus in Iowa and the largest collection of primaries and caucuses on a single day in U.S. history. As recently as 1984, the Iowa caucuses took place on February 20 and the New Hampshire primary a week later. This time around, over half the states had completed the process by the first Tuesday after Groundhog Day. As we approached 2008, speculation abounded about how this new system would work out.

Today we have the answer: we have created the worst of all possible worlds.

Let me explain. Since the primary and caucus system started to dominate the presidential selection process back in the 1970s, people have complained that small, unrepresentative states were given too much influence over the parties' nominations. Clearly, that has not changed. John Edwards' failure to win in Iowa or place in New Hampshire doomed his campaign even before the other 97% of the electorate had a chance to weigh in. Candidates who decided that they were not a good fit in these states learned once again that it is essentially impossible to sit out the first two contests of the season and have any chance at eventual victory.

As usual, narrow victories exploded in significance because they occurred at the beginning of the process. Consider, for example, how much things might have changed had Mitt Romney edged past Mike Huckabee in Iowa, rather than vice versa. Instead, for a lack of a few thousand votes in a single state, Romney was condemned to playing catch-up for the rest of the campaign.

And has any January election in recent memory had the overwhelming significance of the 2008 South Carolina Democratic Primary? Hillary Clinton was the clear frontrunner after her wins in New Hampshire and Nevada, but Obama's lopsided triumph in the Palmetto State became the last and most important story voters heard leading into the Super Tuesday contests a couple of weeks later. Why the Democrats would want to grant that level of influence to such an overwhelmingly Republican state has no sensible answer. In all likelihood, they had no idea that things would shake out this way. A lot of people—and it seems foolish now—probably believed that the looming specter of Super Tuesday would actually minimize the impact of the smaller, earlier states. They were, obviously, wrong.

As states rushed to leapfrog each other to get closer to the starting gate, further unforeseen problems developed. Michigan and Florida, seeking not to get lost in the Super Tuesday cacophony, scheduled their primaries in advance of the Democratic Party's February 5 limit. As a consequence, they were punished with the loss of their convention delegates. Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean will have to answer for this if offended voters in these states, especially Florida, abandon the party in November.

There is another potential landmine awaiting the Dems as well. If Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama arrive at the party's Denver convention nearly equal in the delegate count, the Clinton camp will exert enormous pressure to allow the Michigan and Florida delegations to be seated. Obama, the candidate of positivity and inclusion, will be forced to oppose this tactic. If Clinton wins, her victory will be considered tainted; if Obama prevails, his opponents may regard the nomination as having been stolen on a technicality. It's hard to imagine how this benefits anyone but John McCain.

But even as the primary election system has been criticized over the past three decades, there were always those willing to come to its defense. The process, they say, allows less known, underfunded candidates to engage in retail politics, building strength through the power of their personality and the persuasiveness of their message. A national primary would, by contrast, make it impossible for any but the richest candidates with the greatest name recognition to succeed. Money, they argue, shouldn't decide who gets each party's nomination.

This year, however, we have somehow found a way not only to make the earlier states even more disproportionately influential, we have also elevated the role of funding to a status it has not enjoyed since the age of Nixon. Rather than allowing candidates to build a war chest and empty their coffers gradually, Super Duper Tuesday demanded an orgy of spending that some candidacies simply could not endure and others may not survive. While it is certainly true that money isn't everything—McCain and Huckabee, after all, triumphed over Romney and Rudy Giuliani—it is equally clear that the 22-state lineup facing the candidates on February 5 caused some to give up the ghost earlier than they otherwise would have, and others to emerge in grave danger of extinction despite a generally strong performance at the polls.

This is, indeed, the worst of all possible worlds.

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