In case you haven’t noticed, the breaking news about our system for choosing presidential nominees is that our system is way beyond broken. It is also senseless to the point of being borderline bizarre. And the way it begins is just about as undemocratic as anything any democracy has ever willfully inflicted upon itself.
For decades, Americans have increasingly been shamefully outsourcing the early winnowing of our presidential candidates to two small states that have only miniscule black and Hispanic populations — the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
Candidates spend a year on door-to-door, diner-to-barbershop retail politicking before voters who are overwhelmingly white and represent just 65 of the 3,979 pledged Democratic convention delegates. This campaign’s field that once was more than 20 candidates is now just seven, as the campaign finally has moved on to states with larger minority populations — Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucuses and South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary.
Then suddenly, candidates and strategists will be plunged into a politically nightmarish three-day campaign hell — the March 3 Super Tuesday. Presidential wannabes will be pinballing back and forth across the continent on an impossible quest to campaign in 14 states in just 72 hours (with a whopping 1,357 delegates at stake), from California to Massachusetts, Oklahoma to Virginia, and so on. It makes no sense.
Meanwhile, we also have other ways to measure how the 2020 campaign is going so far. We can use two yardsticks: diversity and democracy.
Diversity: Iowa and New Hampshire have only miniscule percentages of black and Hispanic populations — and by the time those two states got around to their final debates, the Democratic Party, which proudly boasts it is America’s party of diversity, had no blacks on stage. The two prominent black senators who had been running for president, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, had dropped out due to a lack of early support, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Democracy: Iowa’s caucuses (and those in all caucus states) are showcases of the sort of democratic principles that must be greatly admired by Moscow’s Vladimir Putin and Beijing’s Xi Jinping. For starters, there are no secret ballots in caucus states. Voters cluster in groups according to the candidate they favor.
That means every voter’s neighbors can see their voting choices — and so can their workplace bosses and union reps. Strong-willed voters openly urge (see also: arm-twist) people to switch to their candidate’s clusters. (For the moment, we won’t discuss the way the Iowa Democratic Party screwed up its caucuses, because our point here is that, even if it works, it’s fatally flawed.)
Bottom line: Americans have, in effect, outsourced to those two small, unrepresentative states the task of winnowing the field before any of the rest of us get to vote.
For decades, many critics have urged a switch to four regional primaries: Northeast, South, Midwest and West, on the first Tuesday of March, April, May and June. But that reform risks creating a new problem: It could leave us with four regional candidates and no consensus.
So, to avoid the risk caused by potential regional biases, I have proposed a significant variation that cuts across the traditional regions:
Regroup our 50 states into three Time-Zone Primaries:
The Eastern Zone includes Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York and New Hampshire all voting on the same day.
The Central Zone includes Michigan, Iowa, Arkansas and Texas.
The Western/Rocky Mountain Zone: Oregon, Colorado, California and Arizona. Campaigning within the same time zone avoids the need for those coast-to-coast pinballing. The order of each zone’s primary elections would be drawn from a hat.
But in past years, critics raised a valid concern: We will lose something valuable if we don’t start with one or a few small states, because they enable candidates with little name recognition and financing to spend their one resource — time — doing retail door-to-door politicking. It’s their one chance to become known. Indeed, it worked for Jimmy Carter in 1976.
So today we are offering a new and improved Time Zone Primaries proposal: In each zone, party officials will select one small or middle-sized state that also has a representatively diverse population; it will vote on the second Tuesday of that zone’s election month. The rest of the time zone then votes on the month’s fourth Tuesday.
This modified Time Zone Primaries plan can preserve the rainbow diversity that makes America the envy of the world. And it can finally gift most of us with something we really have never had — a real role in choosing our presidents.
Martin Schram, an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.