Put Early Primaries in Large States

David Broder has a silly column in the Washington Post where he argues that how unjust it is that people want to dethrone New Hampshire as the second primary state (Brad DeLong and Kevin Drum have nice rebuttals of Broder). Broder’s argument is truly ridiculous: what great source of wisdom flows from New Hampshire and Iowa that is absent elsewhere? But Broder’s column gives me a chance to discuss a criterion which should be used to choose the early primary states.

When primary season rolls around (which now starts about two years before the general election…), there’s a lot of talk about how politics in IA and NH is “retail politics.” The candidates actually meet many (or at least a significant fraction of) the primary voters. Politicians that do well in this process are thought to have proven themselves ready for a national election. Except there’s one flaw with this argument: nationally, most voters are not involved in retail politics, but, instead, they get their information through media (television). It seems idiotic to select candidates who excel in a political format that is irrelevant to most voters–especially those in large, electoral college vote-rich states.
So instead, why aren’t early primaries in states where having a large media presence matters because that’s what decides elections? Granted, this will hurt less-known candidates, but a media presence is predicted in part on previous name recognition anyway–as is the case with Clinton and Edwards (an aside: the limited exposure argument would be greatly weakened if campaigns were publicly financed). So let’s have at least one early primary in a large state where working the media as opposed to the voters is what matters. Come November, that’s what matters anyway.
update: Jonathan Singer has another interesting argument for why the primary schedule should be changed.
an aside: The Republicans seem to have learned that campaign stops are TV backdrops, while the Democrats still think that working the crowd to turn out individual voters actually matters. Maybe in Rhode Island, but in Pennsylvania or Florida?

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3 Responses to Put Early Primaries in Large States

  1. Scott says:

    Why do we do primaries in small states first?
    1. ‘Cause it’s cheaper. Those whistle stops and town hall meetings are lots cheaper than blanketing a large state with lots TV ads. The potential money backers can identify the candidates they want to fund further, with a smaller investment up front.
    2. ‘Cause it’s cheaper (the less cynical version). It’s cheaper for the candidate to hone “the message”. Those town hall meetings give the opportunity for lots more immediate feedback more cheaply than a media blitz followed by a phone survey.
    3. States rights. Just as the Senate and the electoral system give preferential treatement in a Federal system to smaller states, to make up for their lack of clout in a representative Democracy, so too do early primaries in small states give those small states that extra clout.
    My pick would be to have primaries on a single day nation wide.
    Even better, we should eliminate primaries and use a more “fair” voting system, such as the Borda count. This would also lessen the clout of the two major parties, and give independents a greater chance at success. Of course, that’s the very reason it would never happen.

  2. SLC says:

    There has been a running debate on this topic on the appletree blog. The major problem with the notion that large states should come first in the primaries is the issue of money and name recognition. For instance, suppose that the first primary were held in California in 2008. The result would be a Hilary Clinton sho-in because she has the best name recognition and the largest war chest by far to purchase TV spot adds. The main argument for letting small states go first is that it gives a candidate with low name recognition and little funding a chance of gaining both, if he/she can win early. This is particularly appropriate for 2008 because the consensus among the pros in the Democratic party is that Ms. Clinton would not be their strongest candidate. The consensus is that Mark Warner or John Edwards would have a better shot. The former lacks name recognition and the latter lacks the funding that Ms. Clinton has. In fact, given the addition of South Carolina and Nevada to the early going there is a fair possibility that Ms. Clinton could lose all four contests, which would propel another candidate into a challenging position if he/she could win, say 3 out of the 4.

  3. Stogoe says:

    I, too, must weigh in that we do small states first because they’re cheaper, and we don’t want the person with the most money to automatically win because they can outspend better but less monied candidates. That’s a sure-fire path to permanent aristocracy. I do like spreading the first-primary love to other small states, though, like Nevada and South Carolina, to add some much-needed diversity to the early selection. If only we could spread out the primaries, so one second-place finish early on wouldn’t completely kill a candidate’s prospects…

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