Primary Leapfrog: Can't We All Just Get Along?

Nearly half the states in the country now plan to hold their 2008 presidential nominating events before Valentine's Day. How long before? The soonest could come the week before Christmas, if not sooner.

Why on Earth is this happening?

It's not because the voters in any of these states are desperate to make their choices so early in the year. Nor do they wish to go to the polls before they've thrown out the Christmas tree – or finished trimming it.

Surely the country as a whole is not longing for a February-to-November campaign in which one Republican battles one Democrat in an endless series of attack ads.

No one wants this hyper-accelerated nominating calendar. Not the states, the parties, the candidates or the media. Yet we have it, and it's still gaining speed.

This week, we saw South Carolina's Republicans move their primary from the 29th of January to the 19th (where they will probably be joined by the South Carolina Democrats). Their move was prompted by Florida, which muscled in on the 29th to bigfoot South Carolina and cut it on its action as the first Southern primary (a distinction the Palmetto state has enjoyed since 1980).

But this duel for the distinction of being the Dixie trigger primary is only a part of the earlier-is-better dynamic. By going to the 19th, the Carolinians are getting ahead of "first in the nation" New Hampshire, where the primary is tentatively set for January 22nd. That activates a provision in New Hampshire state law by which the primary must come at least seven days before any other. This means New Hampshire will soon move up at least to January 12. That's a Saturday, so the primary may move up further still.

New Hampshire has been expecting this, and state officials are also keeping a wary eye on Michigan, where Democrats now slated to hold a caucus on February 9 have been threatening to leap to the front of the line.

All of which brings us to the state of Iowa, where state law says the party caucuses will be held eight days or more before any other state stages a primary or a caucus. If New Hampshire moves up as expected, Iowa will have to move to the first week of January – at the latest. And if New Hampshire moves up to January 8 or 9, Iowa may have to leapfrog all the way into December.

Realistically, given New Year's and Christmas, that means landing somewhere in mid-December. That's a time when most Iowans are focused entirely on the holidays and all the family activities of the season. Party caucuses? Be serious.

But it's no accident that the squeeze is on this one Midwestern state. In fact, it is fair to say the current crisis is largely about Iowa.

Ever since Democrats George McGovern and Jimmy Carter made breakthrough use of the Iowa caucus in the 1970s, the small-scale Monday night tradition has garnered a disproportionate amount of candidate and media attention.

There have been down years like 1992, when favorite son Tom Harkin ran for president and gave party rivals an excuse to stay away. There have also been years when the caucus winner in one party (or both) has been dispatched in subsequent primaries (George H. W. Bush in 1980, Bob Dole and Dick Gephardt in 1988).

Yet in cycle after cycle, would-be presidents have given the hamlets and haylofts of the Hawkeye State an enormous slice of their time and fealty. Even more than tiny New Hampshire, Iowa seems to entrance the candidates and their campaigns. This is what grates on other states of all sizes. The big ones gaze in wonder at what Iowa has wrought, the small ones gaze with envy.

This year, the megastates such as California, Texas and New York all moved their primaries to February 5, believing the candidates would ratchet back on the Iowa time. Instead, it turns out the effect of Tsunami Tuesday is perfectly perverse. The earliest small-state events have become more imperative than ever, and Iowa's most of all.

Even those contenders best attuned to the test of February 5 (such as Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) are spending day after day in Iowa. It's the law of unintended consequences on crack.

So by thrusting their own events ever deeper into January, the South Carolinas and Michigans are quite deliberately forcing Iowa to the brink. Push that first caucus into mid-December and it may just become untenable. The candidates will have to reassess and reprioritize. Won't they?

Perhaps. But no one should bet against the special magic of being first, whenever the events are held. Iowa's caucus system has a way of surviving all efforts to suppress it.

Still, one can hope this year's rush to January will finally summon a moment of clarity on the subject of our nominating system. Maybe that nine-month-long general election campaign will start a movement toward a more rational system, top to bottom.

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