One election too many

Moving the presidential primary to February is bad for California and bad for the country

If Gov. Schwarzenegger has his way, voters will be asked to trek to the polls three times in 2008. That’s at least one time too many, and it’s also partly why the 2008 presidential election is heading toward a train wreck because of changes in election scheduling.

The unsettling of the schedule began last year, when the Democratic Party voted to allow Nevada and South Carolina to move their nominating contests into the short, early period heretofore occupied by New Hampshire’s primary and Iowa’s caucuses.

Now the big dogs want into the fight. Four large states seeking to have more clout in presidential-candidate selection—California, Illinois, Florida and New Jersey—are likely to move up their presidential primaries to the first week in February, joining five smaller states that hold primaries then.

Doing so would be bad for candidates and bad for the country. And, in California’s case, it would add a third election to the year (the regular primary would still be held in June), costing some $90 million and contributing to voter fatigue and disinterest. Even moving up the primary in its entirety poses problems.

It would be bad for the candidates because they would be forced to compete—a full nine months before the general election—in a single-day, transcontinental battle in four of the most expensive advertising markets in the country.

And it would be bad for the country because Iowa and New Hampshire do a better job of sorting out the candidates than the big states can do. Because they’re small, their voters meet the candidates face-to-face, at coffee shops and churches and union halls, which gives them the opportunity to judge character as well as ideas. And the candidates don’t need barrels of cash to run, which gives long shots—who are popping up like mushrooms in this wide-open race—a chance to prove themselves.

These changes suggest that the national parties are losing control over the primary schedule. What this will mean is unclear, and campaign strategists are feverishly trying to adjust. Will it favor well-heeled over dark-horse candidates? Will it lengthen or shorten the nominating process? Will it, in fact, give the big states more clout?

The last is questionable. California tried moving up its primary once before—in 1996, to March—and it didn’t work. There’s no good reason to go down this road again.

The prime movers behind the effort are Schwarzenegger, who wants to increase his national profile, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate President Don Perata, who are being termed out after 2008. They want to put an initiative before the voters in February 2008 that would extend their terms in time for the June 2008 election. These are the same men, mind you, who chided Schwarzenegger for wasting taxpayer money by calling for a special election in 2005.

This is political manipulation at its most cynical and hypocritical, and Californians would be wise to reject it.