The eternal, expensive presidential primary we’ll never change

GOP presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas waits to be introduced at an Iowa campaign event. Jim Young | Reuters

GOP presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas waits to be introduced at an Iowa campaign event. Jim Young | Reuters

This column is what you might call, “howling at the moon.”

By that, of course, I mean that I’m going to complain about something that I have no power to change, no matter how loudly persistent I am at it. It doesn’t matter if I am right, or if my rationale is unassailable. That damn moon isn’t going anywhere.

What is the moon in my less than clever analogy? The United States presidential election. Allow me to howl a bit.

This week comes word that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a curious politician who is quite open and unapologetic about being a socialist, is planning to run for president of the United States. He will be running as a Democrat, despite the minor hiccup of technically being an “independent.”

Already we have seen the entry of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio in the Republican primary. We are likely to see very shortly those candidates joined by 10 or 15 more.

On the Democratic side, you already have Hillary and now Bernie Sanders, but joining them you will likely see Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, and if we are so lucky, Joe Biden.

All of these candidates will have settled their formal entry into the race in the next few months, after which we will be treated to nearly two years of non-stop, insufferable coverage of the presidential race.

Why is it like this? Why do we need to tolerate two years of campaigning, and billions of dollars spent on political candidates? Why must we endure such a never-ending avalanche of politics that no one with any level of sanity desires?

Look across the pond at the United Kingdom. They are currently engaged in a hotly contested general election to decide on the next prime minister. The polls are indicating that David Cameron’s Conservative Party and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party are more or less tied right now.

Yet their formal election process only started a couple months ago. Certainly preparations were underway to run the race, and the usual public squabbles between politicos jockeying for the upper hand have always been present. But the obnoxiousness that is actual campaigning didn’t really start until just recently. Short, sweet, furious, and over quickly.

Oh for that to be how we did things. So why don’t we?

Well, the howling I referenced earlier is squarely directed at our primary voting system. How we nominate party candidates for president is directly responsible for the length of our presidential election, the amount of money required of it, and the absurdity of the entire side show.

Primaries are a relatively new phenomenon, politically speaking, in the United States. What we consider the primary system was actually born of the embarrassing chaos surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Primaries existed, in limited terms, in 1968 (only 13 were held), and the nomination of Hubert Humphrey, despite Eugene McCarthy winning six primaries (Humphrey won zero), was so controversial that it led the Democrats to adopt new rules that created primaries nationwide. The 1972 presidential race was the first in which primary contests were held in every state.

The Republicans, of course, followed suit and expanded to nationwide primaries as well. New Hampshire, which has the nation’s oldest primary dating back to 1916, has always traditionally been the first. With 50 states now holding similar elections, New Hampshire adopted a state law requiring it to be the first primary.

With other states moving their primary dates earlier to gain attention from presidential candidates and be held up as important, New Hampshire began holding its primary earlier and earlier. The move to “chase New Hampshire” pulls the other states with it, and the date for presidential elections creeps ever sooner.

With that elongated schedule, and the need to compete in all 50 states, has come an insane travel schedule, a requirement for nationwide media buying, grassroots campaign organizations in as many states as possible, and a price tag that balloons to insane levels.

If you were building an election system from scratch, is this what it would look like? I hope not.

So what to do? With apologies to New Hampshire and Iowa, it is long past time we move toward either a regional primary system or a national primary. These elections must be held much later on the calendar (June of the election year maybe), and in close succession (in the case of a regional system) or all on the same day (for a national system).

The delay would allow us to catch our breath, start later, spend less, and have a much shorter general election. It might just make us hate the process a little less.

Unfortunately, the moon won’t budge. There are too many competing interests, and no one has the political will to force the issue.

Still, howling at it makes me feel a little better.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.