Sunday, August 12, 2007

Electoral Date Creep for our Elected Creeps

IN CASE YOU HAVE been screening out the rising jabber about the American electoral process in favor of more mellifluous sounds, such as the sonic backdrop of a slaughterhouse, you may not have noticed some date creep in the electoral calendar. Specifically, the primaries have moved, as a group, closer to the beginning of the year. The old March "Super Tuesday" comprising the electoral dates of eight states has now metastasized into a 20-state scrum in early February. Although this is a boon for New Jersey voters, who were long marooned in June, after most of the horse-dealing in recent elections has been settled, this might create a wildly top-heavy and early peak to the electoral cycle.

Naturally, the concept of "early" is moot if you realize that the campaigns began months ago, if only as "exploratory committees," even before all of the current prostitutes candidates had declared. Stumping, posturing, and saber-rattling in the name of fundraising has been proceeding since the beginning of the year. But the mass public does not have to show up somewhere on a Tuesday to influence that process. Come 2008, they do.

Or possibly come December 2007. I caught a report on NPR this week about how the state electoral boards are now playing date-hockey in the hopes of regaining their distinct position in the cycle, what with the new February Super Tuesday.

South Carolina decided this week that both of its party primaries would be held on Saturday, January 19. (The NPR report explains that Florida's primary move to January 29 triggered this shift.) Not only does this place it on the same day as the Nevada primary, but it also leapfrogs the New Hampshire primary, currently on Tuesday, January 22. The Iowa straw polls traditionally precede New Hampshire by 8 days, which would place them on January 14, 2008.

Now, by state law, New Hampshire's primary must remain first in the nation. They are now obliged to move to a date prior to South Carolina's primary, now tentatively identified as January 8. This, in turn, forces the organizers of the Iowa caucuses to shift their date. There now stands an excellent chance that you will see the stereotyped TV news shots of candidates harassing Iowans in diners, at churches, and about their polling places in late December.

It was difficult enough to focus the attention of the American electorate on primaries not in their own states in the old schedule. Now, with the formal launch of the presidential race possibly slated for the holiday season, the hugely influential New Hampshire primary wedged into the NFL postseason, and this new mega-Super Tuesday pegged 2 days after the Super Bowl, the next 4 years of the Republic will be defined amid a deeply distracted time. If the current chaos in the housing and credit markets triggers a shortfall in the all-important consumer spending cycle between Halloween and New Year's Eve, you can add to the media noise all manner of doomstruck predictions for the stock market.

What's more, by that season, there's a good chance that Americans will be sick of hearing from whatever candidates survive the current cash scramble and claw their way into the fall. Hopefuls are sniping at one another, both within their parties and at their rivals across the ideological divide. Few have listened to their early debates or followed their recent straw polls. It takes an interactive or color-coded table to tell these bastards apart.

And then, what of the rest of the campaign? Gone are the days of 1972, when the frontrunner's supposed lock on a state could hinge on the favor of a local party boss or the caprice of a delegation at the convention. Only by reading contemporary reports like Thompson's or Stephen Elliott's road's-eye view of the 2004 contest, Looking Forward To It, can one recall the shifting status of temporary idols and fallen hopefuls as polls, rumors, and money toss their fortunes to and fro. And by the current day, primaries are more like coronations, at which point the intraparty strife is forgotten save for some brief thumb-wrestling over the Right vice president.

With the campaigns peaking in March, giving us two near-lock names for the finals in November, doesn't the general election become a distant afterthought? Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 lead one to question if the popular vote even matters any more. You can expect the negative campaigning and the Monday morning quarterbacking on the part of talk radio and to suffuse the entire spring and summer leading up to the nominating conventions. By the time the debates finally get scheduled after the traditional backroom knife-fight between the two corner teams over format, moderator, venue, and the like, we shall be thoroughly sick of the entire process . . . a malaise we can ill afford at that point in history.

This seems a lousy way to choose a leader with one of the most thankless to-do lists since the one Harry Truman inherited when FDR died.

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