Don't Blink, You'll Miss the Primaries Primaries and Caucuses

Article excerpt

HOW voters nominate candidates for the White House has been one of the longest-running dramas in US history.

The system devised by the Founding Fathers, itself greatly debated, survived only two elections. The nominating process has since undergone revisions in every decade.

This year, the changes are dramatic. Eager to exercise greater influence in the selection of candidates, more than a dozen states have moved their primaries or caucuses up. Some, such as the New England states, have banded together to produce regional primaries.

As a result, the vast majority of delegates to the nominating conventions will be chosen in a frenetic five-week period from Feb 12, the Iowa caucuses, to March 26, the California primary. Ironically, the shortest primary season in history has already produced the longest campaign.

The compacted primary season has increased the importance of money and the media. Candidates have to stump in more states simultaneously, making them more dependent on TV ads to convey their messages. The schedule has also forced earlier and more expensive advertising. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander started running television ads in June. Media mogul Steve Forbes has reportedly spent more than $10 million - most of it on TV and radio ads - since late September. The need to spend early has had a winnowing effect even before votes are cast. Sen. Arlen Specter has already withdrawn; other campaigns are sputtering.

In the end, however, the front-loaded schedule may do little to offset the influence of early birds Iowa and New Hampshire. And once the process starts, primaries will come with such speed that candidates will have almost no time to connect directly with voters.

Another facet of the new primary season is the "black hole," the period from April, when major-party nominees will be known, to August, when they will be formally chosen at conventions. This gap provides ample time for third parties or independents to develop.

"It'll be bam, wham, no national discussion," says Michael Goldstein, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "That leaves a large window for public dissatisfaction. …