New Hampshire before New Year's? the Front-Loading of Primaries-Meant to Help Pick a Nominee Quickly-May Backfire

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

I saw Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago last week, and he used a political term from the past: "Favorite son." Until the '60s, local party leaders would often keep their powder dry before a nominating convention by pledging their delegates to a senator or governor from their state. Occasionally, one of these favorite sons--like Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson in 1952--would win the nomination; more often, their delegates became bargaining chips. Daley was explaining why he's backing Barack Obama. Illinois officials are rallying behind him, just as New York has united around Hillary Clinton.

Could this be an omen? A convention instead of a coronation has been the dream of political reporters for a generation. It's still highly unlikely. But no incumbents are running in either party, and the new, yet-to-be-determined primary schedule scrambles old assumptions.

Anyone who claims they know how this will go is blowing smoke. Polls don't help much. A Clinton adviser, who didn't want to be named speculating, told me he thought Hillary might fall behind Obama--then rally as a compelling underdog. An adviser to John McCain, unnamed for the same reason, is worried about Sam Brownback (currently at 1 percent in the polls). There's widespread concern that the front-loading of primaries--meant to help parties settle on a nominee quickly--may backfire. "You can make the case that it will mean an earlier nominee--or a later nominee," says Howard Wolfson, Hillary's spokesman. "The law of unintended consequences means that what we think we know, we don't know."

All we know for sure is that New Hampshire is determined to maintain its tradition of holding the first-in-the-nation primary, even if it means voting this Christmas, and that Iowa and Nevada will hold their caucuses before New Hampshire votes. (Thanksgiving, anyone?) Most likely, all three, plus South Carolina, will hold their contests in January.

Big-state governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and Jon Corzine in New Jersey are trying to move their primaries from late spring all the way up to Feb. 5, with Illinois and Florida expected to join them. With the old tradition of winner-take-all primaries gone, the parties could face a situation where the vast majority of delegates are chosen by late March, but no candidate has it sewn up. …