Breaking Super Tuesday
By Daniel Marrin
(Written April 2008)
In the Republican party, a battle is brewing over the future of primaries. The problem: Super Tuesday. This year’s Super Tuesday was the biggest in U.S. history. On February 5, barely a month into the primaries, 24 states chose their presidential candidates.
Some Republicans argue Super Tuesday is making it impossible for candidates with less money and fame to have time to connect with American voters. Others cite John McCain’s victory with a small staff and budget as proof that the system works, even with Super Tuesday.
One Republican has decided to bring it to a vote.
Bob Bennett, chair of the Ohio Republican Committee, has a plan being hotly debated among Republicans to redraw the primary system and get rid of Super Tuesday. In August, the RNC will vote whether or not to adopt his Ohio Plan, which would divide the country into smaller groups of states that would begin holding their primaries on a staggered schedule.
If approved, the Ohio plan will give priority to smaller states, and Bennett hopes it will foster campaigns where personal encounters with voters are as essential to victory as ads. First though, his plan has to win over two groups: the large states that dominate Super Tuesday and the political consultants who raise the funds for campaign ads. Both groups stand to lose influence under the plan.
Bennett knows he’s in for a struggle. “It’s a nine-inning ballgame, and we’re in the second inning,” he said.
The plan breaks America up into five groups or “pods,” each with a different date they can begin holding primaries. In the first pod are the traditional firsts Iowa and New Hampshire , along with Nevada and South Carolina who are usually the first to go in their regions. They could begin any time after February 1.
The second pod has the smallest states with the least delegates, who could begin their primaries the third week of February. The largest states then go into three pods that would take turns every election going third, fourth and fifth pod so no state or group is always last. These pods could begin primaries the first week of March, the last week of March, and the third week of April respectively.
Bennett’s hope is that by emphasizing small states, his plan will give more priority to face-to-face encounters, or what he calls “retail politics.” “It’s meeting the voter at the retail level, rather than the mass merchandising level,” he said. In states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s seen retail politics work when presidential candidates visit voters in town halls and living rooms.
But he sees such campaigns growing rare in the current age, especially because of Super Tuesday. “If you’re vying in 20 states at the same time, you’re not in a position to do retail campaigning.” By dividing up the primaries and giving first pick to small states, Bennett hopes to nourish retail politics.
Some large state Republican parties are already opposing the plan. Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis claimed he has 14 states ready to vote against it. Anuzis said he supports a change in the system, but would want all the states to rotate including Iowa and New Hampshire. Anuzis said that though he agrees in the need for change, he would prefer the status quo to Bennett’s plan.
The other key group opposed to the plan are political consultants. Consultants are less likely to complain about Super Tuesday, Bennett said, because they benefit from it, bringing in the dollars for candidates’ media campaigns, from direct mail to public opinion polls and television advertising. Such media spending is likely to break records in this election. Media analysts at Campaign Media Analysis Group predict $3 billion will have been spent this year on media for national elections, including the presidency, Congress, and other races.
Most politicians on the RNC have relationships with consultants, including Bennett. “All of the state chairs would, and that’s a third of the committee,” he said. Some consultants are even members of the committee for their state.
Bob Kjellander, a consultant from Illinois and Republican national committee member, said he sees no need for a major overhaul of the system. “I defy anyone to show me that this process is broken.” he said. “This Republican race was among one of the most contested race in any of our lifetimes.” He highlighted the amount of money spent by candidates like Romney as a sign of a healthy Republican contest.
The Ohio plan faces three challenges ahead. First, there will be another meeting of the RNC rules committee a week before the convention, then a full vote by all of the RNC. Finally, it goes to the Rules Committee of the Republican Convention, where previous plans at reform have died. If it succeeds there, it will go to the floor of the convention where it would likely be approved.
Bennett will spend the next months putting together a committee to lobby for the plan and advocate for it in the media. If he wins, he hopes it will encourage the Democrats toward similar reforms.