The Staggered Primary System: It’s Just Not Fair To Voters

Image via iStockPhoto/Daniel Sofer

The GOP primaries are underway, one grueling battle after another. After close to a year of constant coverage of the candidates as they entered the race and began to sprinkle money around key states, it’s almost surprising that there’s more to the process than web ads, cable news debates, and people tweeting the good, the bad and the ugly about candidates.

But no, in fact,  primary season involves actually voting in an effort to determine who is the most popular candidate among the party faithful. The winner will present himself (and, alas, it will be a him) to the American public in opposition to President Obama for a final electoral showdown in November.

That’s ten long months of campaigning away. If I’m feeling burned out by all of this already, how must these candidates be feeling?

Some of them are feeling the hollow ache of defeat. After the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, several candidates, including the only woman, have left the race. They cite all sorts of reasons but the real explanation is always money. A loss in an early primary state means fundraising dries up and no campaign can continue without money. That fact should really upset everyone because qualification to govern should matter more than the ability to stock a war chest. But in this, the post-Citizens United world, big money is the oxygen in campaigns and he who has the best stocked coffers has the advantage. That’s why Democrats are smugly toting up Obama’s quarterly fundraising reports and smirking as the leading GOP contenders burn through money fighting the primary battles, leaving them to play fundraising catch-up before November. As a Democrat, I like feeling like Obama has a leg up for the general. As an American, I hate that money tilts the playing field so severely.

The other fact that should be upsetting is the inherent unfairness of the staggered primary system. Not to the candidates. It’s arguable that being able to focus on one state at a time is better for candidates. But the practical result of the staggered primary system is one in which each successive state to vote gets a less robust slate of choices. Iowa and New Hampshire got to choose from the entire field. But even South Carolina, with the third primary of the season, faced a diminished ballot and I don’t doubt that Floridians will have fewer choices yet.

I imagine there are numerous primary voters across the country who are fairly disappointed not to get to cast a vote for Michele Bachmann or John Hunstman or Rick Perry, people who think the remaining candidates are deficient in some way. People who have been screwed out of picking their top choice by the system that gives Iowa first dibs for no other reason than Iowa has always had first dibs.

I understand the logic of the staggered primaries that allowed candidates to take their message from place to place in person. But this is the internet age. I find it hard to believe that the amplification properties of traditional and new media can’t be used to run a single campaign leading up to a single, national primary day. I mean, really, is there a single person in America who didn’t have access to the basic messaging of each candidate from the time the declared until the day they dropped out? (Well, yes because of disparities in technology access but that’s another issue for another post). The ubiquity of national media coverage of the candidate, be it the Huffington Post, the national TV news, or USA Today makes the rationale for staggered primaries obsolete. Every candidate was able to raise enough money to campaign for close to a year. That should entitle them to consideration by a national representation of their party. They shouldn’t be kicked off the stage like an American Idol hopefully before the entire audience has gotten to weigh in.

The deck is stacked against any candidate who isn’t a prodigious fundraiser. Running for president, from primary to general, now constitutes a two year commitment to pulling in money and constant campaigning, and failure to fund-raise is a failure to win. I would argue that there is no benefit to anyone from this set up. It’s long past time to consider new a system where the primaries aren’t a gradual series of elimination rounds and money isn’t the key to electoral success.

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