Public Comment

Commentary: Rotating Primaries: An Eternally Bad Idea

By Thomas Gangale
Tuesday August 07, 2007

Ever wonder why nothing ever gets done in Washington? One of the reasons is that some of our elected officials, once they get an idea into their heads, they fixate on it until the end of time, no matter how dumb it is. The latest dumb, old idea is being trumpeted by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT). The fact that they’re touting it as a “tri-partisan solution” ought to tell that it’s more hype than substance. There’s a Democrat, a Republican, and a Leiberman. What, is Leiberman a party of one? Well, I guess that makes it easier for him to get seated in a busy restaurant. 

So much for the hype, now let’s take a look at their dumb, old idea: a plan for rotating regional presidential primaries. The idea dates back to the early 1970s, when Oregon Republican Bob Packwood introduced a bill for such a plan in the U.S. Senate. The bill had only two co-sponsors and it died in committee. Thirty-two similar bills have been floated in Congress over the past 30 years, and they have met the same fate. “Jumpin’ Joe” Leiberman himself has tried this twice before, in 1996 and 1999, and all he ever had was one co-sponsor. Quite simply, this is a plan that can’t survive outside the committee room. 

Neither of the political parties likes this idea, although they are interested in other reform proposals. A Republican commission passed on it in 2000, and even though a 2005 Democratic commission invited a presentation on the rotating regional plan, the commission’s report didn’t even mention the plan. In fact, in the Democratic commission’s deliberations, the rotating regional plan ranked second from the bottom, just above doing nothing. 

It’s pretty clear why: one-quarter of the nation would vote on the same day, the second block of voters would have to wait until a month later, the third block yet another month.... Now, who in his or her right mind thinks that any but the first block of votes will have any meaning? When the Howard Dean campaign collapsed in late February 2004, less than a quarter of the delegates had been chosen, and at that point John Kerry was the de facto Democratic nominee. The other way of looking at it is that more than three-quarters of the nation’s Democrats had absolutely no say in the nomination of John Kerry. 

The rotating regional plan would permanently disenfranchise three-quarters of the electorate in both parties. Because the winner of the first regional primary would look like “The Winner” and the others would come off looking like also-rans, every candidate would spend all of his or her time, energy and money in those first states in a do-or-die effort. The rest of the country would be completely ignored. 

Since no resources would remain for any real campaigning after this electoral Armageddon, the states in the remaining three regional primaries would get on the bandwagon with The Winner of the first primary. Win one, get three free. Any politician can do that math. The lucky first 25 percent would rotate from one four-year cycle to the next. Your particular region would get to cast a meaningful vote once every four cycles, or once every 16 years. You would be privileged to choose your party’s nominee three or four times during your life. That’s enough voting privilege for one lifetime, right? 

According to H.L. Mencken, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.” This is one of them. There are much better alternatives out there, but politicians are ignoring them so they can continue riding their tired old hobbyhorses, rather than study new solutions based on solid political science. The American people deserve better than this empty-headed grandstanding. 


Thomas Gangale is the executive director at OPS-Alaska, a think tank based in Petaluma, where he manages projects in political science and international relations. He is the author of From the Primaries to the Polls: How to Repair America’s Broken Presidential Nomination Process, to be published by Praeger in December 2007.