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A political primer on primaries

August 25, 2007 |  1:58 am

Probably a lot of you have become confused about the 17 ongoing presidential campaigns and the other one that's been postponed a few times so it can fall apart before it begins, all preparing for the tumultuous, constantly-changing schedule of primary elections and caucuses to help pick the candidates who will wait around for months until they accept their parties' presidential nominations at conventions that are still a year away to run in national campaigns that come after that and are only two months long but seem like 10 leading up to Election Day on Nov. 4, 2008.

The legal battles come after that because court calendars are generally lighter just before the holidays.

So finally we're going to clarify all of this for you.

First, primary campaigns aren't really primary. They're secondary to general election campaigns which are primary. Primary elections were instituted by the Founding Fathers in legislative earmarks to boost hotel, restaurant and television station revenues in New Hampshire and Iowa at a time of year when no one in their right mind would go to either place. Iowa turned a daytime primary election into a nighttime caucus because the farm chores are supposed to be done by dark and Monday Night Football is over by January.

Everybody knows that neither state matters much anymore, but all the candidates troop there with their entourages and claques of media representatives because both states make quaint settings for news coverage and the citizens act important and look good in flannel shirts and Dockers. They tell candidates fascinating things like, "I saw you on TV last night" and "You look taller in person."

And they also ask a lot of earnest questions about education, which a president can't really do much about except talk, ethanol, which is very important to every single corn farmer you know, and what they read on the internet about Mormons eating their children.

Iowa has become such an important part of the presidential selection process because with all of...

its empty space and 95% white population it is so totally unrepresentative of the American nation. New Hampshire is an essential part of the primary process because the Manchester Union-Leader says it is and no politician wants to be the one to tell that newspaper that the 19th century ended some time ago.

About 2,800,000 of Iowa's less than 3 million residents won't have anything to do with a caucus session. It won't look that way on TV though. In New Hampshire, where probably four out of ten voters won't bother, TV coverage will show people trooping through snow into schools all day, even though the campaigns' political managers will know before brunch who's won. Everyone keeps the secret to boost TV ratings that evening.

In recent years a lot of other states, most of them equally unimportant and unrepresentative, decided to horn in on all the TV coverage and hotel revenues. Nevada, which leads the nation in sandy desolation, has a caucus now on Jan. 19, the same day as South Carolina Republicans vote, while their state's Democrats wait for Jan. 29 just to be different.

National Democrats meet today to determine punishment for Florida party members who are moving their primary too early, Jan. 29. And a whole bunch of states, including California, have moved their primaries to Feb. 5, thinking earlier will make them more important. (In fact, don't tell New Hampshire, but Californians can actually start voting Jan. 3 when absentee ballots go out.)

As of today, Michigan is poised to stage its primary on Jan. 15. According to New Hampshire state law, which, of course, could be changed but no one there has thought of it, that state's primary must come a week before any other, which means Jan. 8.

Traditionally, and we all know how important tradition is except when it doesn't matter, Iowa holds its caucuses eight days before New Hampshire, which would mean caucuses on New Year's Eve. No one has ever confused an Iowa caucus with a New Year's party. So could that mean Iowa caucuses before Christmas? The governor says no, but he's from Iowa.

If Iowa moves into December, Jim Kuhnhenn, an enterprising Associated Press reporter, has found a provision of federal law which, if strictly interpreted, could mean that the $2,300 primary contribution limit for each candidate would jump to $4,600 because the elections are held in two different calendar years. So candidates could return to every donor who thought they'd already maxed out.

Which would be good for hotels, restaurants and television stations because these campaigns don't cost enough yet.

Is everything clear now?

If not, the United States could always adopt the system now developing in Fiji. Last December Frank Bainimarama seized control of that Pacific island nation in a military coup and proclaimed himself prime minister. This week when reporters asked when he would return Fiji to scheduled democratic elections, the prime minister said Feb. 13, 2009 at 10 A.M. The news flashed around the world.

A government spokesman later explained that the prime minister was just joking so reporters would stop pestering him about elections.

--Andrew Malcolm

 

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