Caucus conundrum hurts politicians, people

Comedian Lewis Black, who came to Yale a few weeks ago, has this to say about our annual celebration of Christmas:

“You Christians have created a holiday that has become a beast that cannot be fed. Every year Christmas gets longer and longer and longer, and you don’t care. … How long does it take you people to shop?”

Lewis Black could just as easily have been talking about the presidential primaries.

There was a time, not so long ago, when a presidential election year meant just that — a year. For the 1992 election, Bill Clinton announced his formal intention to seek the presidency in October 1991 — a little over three months before the Iowa caucuses. In 1992, the New Hampshire primary was held in late February, and the nomination was still at least somewhat up in the air for months after that. Eight years later, George W. Bush announced his intention to run for president in June 1999, roughly six months before the Iowa caucus.

And now? The front pages of the nation’s top newspapers tell their own story. 2007 has barely begun, and hefty hats are already flying into the ring, from left, right and center. Barack Obama issued his call to arms on Saturday. Mitt Romney is officially in as of Tuesday. Hillary is in, McCain will be soon. John Edwards set a new record by actually declaring his candidacy before the New Year. They’re off to the races.

Scarcely a day goes by without cable news programs flooding their shows with stories about the top-tier ’08 contenders, or columnists solemnly assessing their chances, or pollsters releasing the results of hypothetical matchups. The blogosphere is already waiting with baited breath to report on the first major gaffe of 2008 … in 2007.

Here’s the problem: We are coming up on one of the most all-around exciting presidential elections in modern American history. And by the time we actually get around to voting, the public is going to be bored to tears.

Why this Christmas-like trend? Over the years, both parties have come to front-load their nomination calendars, compressing the primary schedule so that major primaries come in a sudden flood after Iowa and New Hampshire. Parties do this because they think they have an interest in establishing a clear nominee as early as possible — it allows the entire party to rally around its champion, stop infighting and start raising serious dough.

This year’s primary schedule has pushed things about as far in this direction as they can possibly go. On the Democratic side, the Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina primaries and caucuses will all be held between the middle and the end of January 2008. That’s four major primary contests held within 14 days. More dramatically, major legislation is currently pending in California, Illinois, Florida and New Jersey — and potentially New York — to hold presidential primaries for these states in February. The possibility of so many populous states holding primaries so early is virtually unprecedented.

This front-loaded schedule, echoed on the Republican side, means that the candidates simply don’t have the luxury of pursuing a Bill Clinton strategy of intense retail politics in one tiny state and then using success there as a springboard to gain momentum. To be competitive, the ’08 candidates will have to compete simultaneously in all four states — which requires a massive early investment in staff and a huge push in fundraising. The chairman of the Federal Election Commission has said he thinks candidates will have to raise $100 million by the end of 2007 in order to be competitive in this environment. That’s over $250,000 — or over 100 $2,000 donations — every day, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31.

So the candidates realize that unless they declare for president unequivocally, right now, there is the risk that key staffers and donors will gravitate to another campaign, and the train will have left the station before they can get on it.

I suppose you won’t hear too many complaints from people like me, that is, the political junkies who love reading about presidential politics every day for a year.

But it’s not good for anyone else. The parties, by simultaneously lengthening the campaign and shortening the actual presidential primary calendar, give primary voters more of an opportunity to get bored with the candidates, but less of a chance to have second thoughts after Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates themselves are asked to spend more and more of their lives schmoozing donors and sweet-talking party leaders. Voters will spend nearly two years hearing in detail about the foibles of the contenders, but will have less opportunity than ever to actually choose the winner. And the American government will spend one-fourth of its time submerged in full-bore presidential politics, with all its distorting effects on the actual act of governing.

Roger Low is a senior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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