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Primary Colors

Michael J. Ring

Seismic waves emanating from California this week rocked the nation, but these waves were not the result of two of the earth's plates sliding past each other. The epicenter of these shock waves was Sac- ramento - more spe-cifically, the California State Capitol building.

This past week the Golden State set its 2000 presidential primaries for March 7. New York and five New England states are among those that have already slated presidential primaries for that week. In the week following that, Texas and Florida will anchor Super Tuesday, and one week thereafter the large states of the Rust Belt head to the polls. California's decision means a candidate will be selected, if not as a de jure nominee then certainly as a de facto nominee, in a span of two weeks.

Like the great earthquakes of the San Andreas fault that can from time to time wreak such havoc on the Golden State, California's decision is a disaster for our political process. California's decision will rob voters of the chance to meet and learn about candidates, and will force candidates themselves to engage in draining bicoastal travel and expensive media wars on both coasts.

Our nation's primary system has traditionally been grounded in the art of "retail politics." Primaries were designed to give candidates a chance to meet the voters directly and hear from the electorate the cares and concerns that face the nation. The voters were given a chance to learn the personalities and temperaments of the candidates as well as their stands on the issues. It was old-fashioned, personal campaigning that allowed lesser-known candidates as well as front-runners a chance to get out their platform and vision.

It is with good reason, therefore, that Iowa and New Hampshire hold the first presidential caucuses and primaries, respectively. Both small states without any large cities and major media markets, candidates must travel and talk to the people in the towns across those states to campaign. Iowa and New Hampshire give opportunities for lesser-known candidates, like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, to emerge from a pack of better-known, more well-financed adversaries. The scheduled primaries of the week of March 7 will offer only meager opportunities, if any at all, for prospective presidents to make personal contact with the voters.

California, New York, Georgia, Colorado, Maryland, and the five New England states besides New Hampshire will all cast primary votes at that time. A hodgepodge of states encompassing all regions of the country, these ten states have very divergent needs and interests. No state will probably receive the attention and credit it deserves in this frenzied schedule. Candidates will be hopping to and from the Northeast, the South, the Rockies, and the West under this plan. The emphasis will not be on discussing issues of local interest, as should be the goal of a primary.

The campaigning style on this day will not be a ground war, but an air war. Those running for the presidency will find little time to visit schools in Oakland, conservationists in the Rockies, fishers on the Chesapeake Bay, or industrial plants in Buffalo and Rochester. The emphasis will be on fund raising and a media blitzkrieg blanketing major media markets from Boston to San Diego with expensive, expansive television advertising. California's decision only furthers the already baneful influence of money in our election process: As it stands now, there is zero probability of an underfinanced candidate making a strong showing in the 2000 primaries.

If this choice was such a disaster to American democracy, then why did California change its primary date? The old system robbed California of a voice in the primary process. Its primary, relegated to the balmy days of June, was meaningless as candidates by that time had already won enough delegates to win nomination. So it is certainly understandable that California sought to move its primary date to give it more of a voice in the electoral process.

The most fair and equitable way to give all states and regions of the country an equal share of responsibility and attention in the primary system is to devise a schedule of rotating primaries. After the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, traditional forums which have usually served this country well in its presidential choices, six or seven more groups of primaries would follow. Each of these dates would feature primaries from a different region of the country, such as the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic States, the Deep South, the Midwest, the Rockies, and the Pacific Coast States. The order of these regional superprimaries would rotate, so that a region voting first one year would vote last four years later.

This schedule of primaries would focus candidates' attention on issues of regional concern. Candidates, for example, could present the farmers of the Plains with thoughtful programs for saving America's family farms. They could offer the fishers of New England plans to replenish the Atlantic fishing stocks. They could address the concerns of Southwesterners worried about illegal immigration. A system of regional primaries would create frank and constructive discussion of local issues, something that is sorely missing in the current presidential process of making vague and broad economic, education, and health care promises.

A regional primary system would also better serve the needs of candidates. Able to stay in one part of the country for several weeks at a time, a prospective president would be able to learn about the people of a particular region and their concerns. It would lessen the need for frequent cross-country travel in the primary season. And while this plan is absolutely no substitute for a campaign-finance reform bill such as McCain-Feingold, a regional primary system could create opportunities for candidates to make an impact in a particular state or region through personal appearances, instead of TV buys.

Finally, there should be no two-week rush of voting in the new primary schedule. Several weeks' time should space each regional primary, giving candidates time to make thoughtful proposals and voters time to make thoughtful choices. And there is no reason why the campaign cycle could not begin later in the spring. The early primary season may have been important when national party conventions dominated the news of the summer, but today those anachronistic dinosaurs have effectively no power, as the presidential candidate is chosen by the voters, and the vice-presidential candidate by the presidential candidate. The boring, self-promoting atmosphere of the party conventions puts even the most voracious political vultures to sleep. A candidate's time would be better spent on an extended primary season than on those relics.

There is still nearly one and one-half years to the 2000 presidential primary cycle. That is time enough for both national parties and the 50 secretaries of state, if committed to this worthy goal, to devise and implement a new primary system. The voters of 2000 should be very much appreciative if something new and exciting can be worked out, because, as it stands now, the candidate's way to your vote will be through your TV.