Better way to end presidential primary creep

Our holiday season is about to get hijacked so just a handful of American voters will end up picking our 2012 presidential nominees way too early.

It is time to demand an end to the greed-based imperatives of a few states that have been leapfrogging their primary and caucus dates ever earlier — just to cash in on the campaign dollars windfall that rewards the two, three or four states that go first. For years, we have let Iowa and New Hampshire voters whittle away at what can be a large field of presidential hopefuls.

Every four years, Democratic and Republican voters in most states discover that the choice of a presidential nominee has already been made for them. Or that their first-, second- and third-choice candidates have already been forced out of the race by voters in a small faraway place that really doesn’t represent their state’s people or interests. Then the nominee is virtually chosen by springtime. So everyone sits around for months before the final two months of the fall campaign.

There is a better way — a plan that may not have been suited for earlier eras but is ideal for fostering democracy in the video age and (especially) the Internet age of presidential politics. It is based on the concept of time zone primaries and caucuses — and we’ll get to it in a minute.

But first, here’s a quick catch-up on the mess our politicos have made of today’s nominating calendar. While most Americans are agog amid the usual Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s whirligig, television’s gush of warm and fuzzy holiday commercials will duel with those slash-and-burn attack ads of desperate presidential candidates.

Iowa, which planned to go first on Feb. 6 (which was way too early), will now hold its caucuses before some have cleared their New Year’s Eve cobwebs — on Jan. 3. All because Florida moved to cash in by moving its primary earlier to Jan. 31, igniting a chain-reaction: South Carolina and Nevada pushed earlier into mid-January. So Iowa jumped to an earliest-ever Jan. 3. And New Hampshire’s infuriated pols were threatening to hold their 2012 campaign primary in December 2011. Humbug.

That alone is proof that it is past time for us to start streamlining our presidential politics for the Internet age. And we can start by getting rid of our campaign bandwagon’s ancient running boards — the vote-first anachronism of Iowa and New Hampshire and the notion that we still need two small states to go first and do our thinking and thinning for us.

Many have suggested four regional primaries or caucuses — Northeast, South, Midwest and West — on the first Tuesday of March, April, May and June with the order of each region’s elections being drawn from a hat each election year.

But I have long thought that idea has one huge negative: It gives a big potential advantage to a candidate who may be strong regionally, but weak nationally.

Solution: To avoid traditional regional bias, regroup the regions according to three time zones. Some of the states in the Eastern Zone would be Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York and New Hampshire all voting on the same day. The Central Zone would include Michigan, Iowa and Texas. Western-Rocky Mountain Zone: Oregon, Colorado, California and Arizona. The order that time zones vote each year would be either alternating or random.

Advantages: No longer would we have our initial decisions made for us by voters in a few small states that are famously unrepresentative of the American rainbow mosaic, from its racial hues to its economic rainbow that ranges from Rust Belt to Cotton Belt.

Millions more Americans can become part of the first wave of elections that narrow the field of presidential nominees.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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