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Primary election system leaves much to desire

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February 3, 2008
— Now that the long-anticipated “Tsunami Tuesday” is almost upon us, the full folly of choosing presidential candidates in what amounts to a national primary has become apparent to everyone.

Voters in 24 states, spanning the continent and ranging in size from California and New York down to Delaware and North Dakota, will cast ballots. They may well settle the Republican nomination and go a long way toward resolving the identity of the Democratic candidate.


Few of those voters will have had more than a quick glimpse of the candidates, who have had little time to devote to the entire country since the last single-state contests in South Carolina and Florida.


What they know is what the surviving candidates—two Democrats and four Republicans—have told them in TV ads and other communications, plus the daily bulletins and comments of the media.


Last week I was in Arizona, one of the more vigorously contested small states voting Tuesday, and saw what was available to its voters. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were regularly on the TV screen, with self-serving messages they have financed from their lavish treasuries. Obama spent a few hours in Phoenix for a rally, and the next day, Bill Clinton showed up briefly on behalf of his wife.


And that was it.


Republicans saw even less of their candidates because Mitt Romney chose not to challenge John McCain on McCain’s home ground. The other two Republicans, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, are spending their limited time and money elsewhere.


As a result, Arizona voters heard much more from—and about—the two teams preparing for the Super Bowl in a Phoenix suburb than they did from the people seeking the presidency.


What has developed in this election cycle is a system in which the best-informed people have the fewest votes to bestow, while the people with the most votes have the least chance to examine the credentials of the candidates. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada had graduate-school time to study the field, while the voters in the Feb. 5 states got only a CliffsNotes version of the campaign.


That topsy-turvy scheme is the byproduct of the headlong rush of states to the front of the calendar—a self-defeating panic reaction that swept through legislatures a year or more ago, with politicians trying to increase their own leverage.


The wise move turns out to have been to avoid the Feb. 5 lure and find a place for your state in the relatively open calendar space remaining. Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia settled on Feb. 12 and, as a result, their voters will have a full week of exposure to the remaining candidates. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, among others, will also have opportunities to count.


The hope has to be that, considering this experience, the race to get on the calendar early might be slowed before 2012. But the temptation to squeeze into the first tier might not be easy to overcome. Michigan and Florida were both punished by the national parties for moving up this year, by loss of delegate seats. But officials in those states are expressing no remorse.


Some would argue that even the glut of states voting Tuesday are not being shortchanged by the candidates, thanks to the volume of campaign news filling cable TV channels and the Internet.


But these media are limited in their reach. Even when they bring the candidates directly into homes, as CNN did by televising two debates last week, the information voters can get is limited.


The Republican debate saw Romney and McCain squabbling over fragmentary quotes that the senator said showed Romney equivocated on Iraq—while Romney angrily accused McCain of distorting his position.


One night later, Obama and Clinton did a buddy act, pretending fellowship and suffocating their differences on health care and Iraq in a blizzard of trivia.


The middle range of real policy choices—how to proceed next in Iraq or wrestle with runaway health care costs—remains largely unexplored.


It is a strange and awkward way to pick a president. Still, considering the fields that began the race, one can be grateful for the quality of the candidates that remain. The weeding-out process has left some of the most talented on their feet.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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