Is the U.S. Primary System Flawed? Political Jostling Exposes Weakness

It’s the time of year when the battle between states for primary dates begins.

First, it was Florida that defied the rules of the Republican National Committee and announced it would hold its primary on Jan. 31.

Now, Nevada is joining the race by moving up its caucus to Jan. 14, a date that New Hampshire politicians fear could diminish their state’s influence.

Only four states — New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada — are allowed by the national party committees to hold their primary or caucus before March 6, a tradition that began in the early 20th century.

But given the soft penalties, the rules have been increasingly broken in recent years, resulting in a catfight over which states should go first.

“It’s tradition. That’s really all that it amounts to,” said Larry Sabato Jr., political scientist and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “No one’s happy with the status quo. The amazing thing is that most people just shrug their shoulders and say nothing can be done. … The parties don’t have the tools needed to really punish individual states.”

Supporters of the current system, however, argue that it forces candidates to put their boots on the ground and talk to real people, a connection that’s important to build credibility.

“I think the primary system, broadly speaking, works. It allows candidates to emerge. It allows the voters over time to measure and judge people. I think it is very important that it be a multi-month process,” 2012 contender Newt Gingrich said in 2008. “The current process both allows unusual candidates without great resources to emerge in Iowa and New Hampshire and, at the same time, it gives enough time to test everyone extensively.”

The early primaries bring influence and visibility to the states, and in some elections they have determined the course of the race. They can help a strong candidate like Mitt Romney, who is leading in the polls, gain more attention, but can hurt underdogs like Jon Huntsman, who are less visible.

The four states are hardly representative of the country, in general, when it comes to population and demographics, and critics say they get undue advantage. But there’s little impetus to change the system. Doing so would require a congressional mandate or a Constitutional amendment.

“Sweeping reform is more of a pie-in-the-sky notion,” said Josh Putnam, assistant political science professor at Davidson College who runs the blog, Frontloading HQ. “It is something that’s difficult to implement, given the institutionalization of the process.”

New Hampshire and Iowa are the first two states to hold a primary and caucus, a tradition that began in the early 20th century. Until 1972, the New Hampshire primary was held on the second Tuesday in March and it was followed by a flurry of primaries and caucuses until June.

But the system has been challenged recently as other states realize the monetary benefits of holding early primaries and the media attention that they garner.

That, in turn, has resulted in more early primaries. In 1972, the first primary was held in February. By 2004, that date had moved back to January.

For the first time ever, the New Hampshire primary could be held in December, which could translate into an even longer campaign season for candidates, an idea that Sabato dubs “absurd.”

“People should be interested in politics, but not every day of the year, not during the holiday season. It doesn’t serve the system. It doesn’t serve the parties,” he said.

Huntsman is boycotting the Las Vegas debate and is threatening to boycott the Nevada caucus because of the early schedule. Such a move would give an additional nudge to front-runners such as Romney and Cain.

But experts caution against lending too much credence to early primaries. After all, neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama won the New Hampshire primary and both nabbed the Democratic nomination and, eventually, the presidency. Republican presidential candidate John McCain placed fourth in the Iowa caucus in 2008, but he went on to nab the GOP nomination.