On Friday, Jay Cost of the Horse Race Blog posted a must-read on the various debates and potential alternatives to the primary Frankenstein we have seemingly created for 2008. Although Jay doesn’t necessarily mind the system as it is, he still diligently evaluates some of the alternatives being floated. Ultimately, the deficiencies he finds in all of these proposed alternatives stems from their inability to foster retail politics at the grassroots level. This is something Iowa and New Hampshire have traditionally done:

The more people who are allowed to vote at once, the more pressure there will be on candidates to use television advertisements, therefore to acquire money, and therefore to court big money donors. Just because we give to the public the right to select who shall be the nominee does not mean that we have avoided the plutocratic exercise of power. As I have indicated several times on this blog – the exercise of power can be subtle. The more pressure you place on candidates to acquire big money, the more power you give political elites to set the national agenda. In other words – political elites will effectively narrow the field of choices for all of us in these schemes by supporting, or refusing to support, candidates.

This is why placing Iowa and New Hampshire early in the cycle has a real benefit. This is an opportunity for candidates to build grassroots support via retail politicking. From this activity, they can post some wins and then score some big donors. In this situation you give to Iowa and New Hampshire some of the power to set the agenda. They are empowered to review a whole host of candidates, and decide which are, and which are not, worthy of the broader publics consideration. Of course, the media and the political elites play this role in the current system, too. But, in these alternative schemes, Iowa and New Hampshire would lose what power they have, and essentially all agenda-setting power would accrue to political elites in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles.

The problem in the last few cycles has been not only that Iowa and New Hampshire set the agenda for the rest of the public – they also effectively made the choice for all. This happened in 2004 and 2000 with the Democrats. I think this year’s schedule might ameliorate much of this problem [which, recall from yesterday, is overrated – Iowa and New Hampshire have only ever effectively chosen the nominees when they act in tandem]. Iowa and New Hampshire come early, but they are almost immediately followed by a majority of the nation. This separation between the early states and Super Tuesday retains Iowa and New Hampshire’s agenda-setting power. They can flag candidates as worthy or unworthy of our attention. Meanwhile, the smallness of the separation means that the race will not end before Super Tuesday happens. With just two weeks between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday – it is unlikely that the competition will fall off because of losses in the Buckeye and Granite States. The public will be able to use the early states as an agenda-setting cue, but will still be able to make a real choice.

Jay goes on to evaluate some of the reformist plans being offered, and does a good job of highlighting both their qualities and their question marks. Personally, I think I would prefer something that resembles what are being loosely referred to as the “Delaware Plan” and the “California Plan.” I like the former because it creates a slow build up, so that all candidates could start in small states like Delaware, and finally conclude their campaigns in states like California. By that time, small “retail” states will have “set the agenda” as Jay puts it, and the big money being spent on states like New York would presumably be coming from the coffers of the genuine frontrunners. The so-called California Plan would enable something similar, by randomly grouping big and small states/territories into 10 two-week intervals.

However, Jay has a preemptive strike for those who might buy into these ideas:

This type of schedule could enable candidates to win votes via retail politicking. I think that is precisely its point. However, if the selection of states is random, it is not hard to envision a scenario in which you need lots of money and time simply to fly the jet (Round 1: Delaware, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico). Thus, this would offer no guarantee of protection for retail politicking. Also, it is naïve to think that retail politicking can happen any where at any time. It takes strong grassroots political institutions – strong local parties, strong civic groups, etc. It also takes a public that is willing to dedicate the time and effort to evaluating these candidates in formats that are more personal than the mass media. In my dissertation, I call this the political economy of the electoral campaign. It varies from locale to locale. To think that we can pick up New Hampshire’s method of politics and place it in Mississippi – without creating equally strong political institutions and a culture attuned to retail politics – is not very realistic. What is more, the variable nature of this system will make it so that only rarely will publics be able to engage in retail politics, and therefore no place will be able to retain the political and social institutions necessary for such politics.

Also, I find it hard to imagine a contest lasting past four of these ten rounds. Thus, never more than 24% of the public will essentially decide the nominees. The blindness of the scheme offers justice to all states – but justice is not the same as efficiency. One of the criticisms of the current scheme is that only a small segment of the public ever gets a say. This is inefficient, given that the President is a leader of all of us. This system fails to address this inefficiency.

So what’s the solution? Perhaps we’ve found it. Shifting the system in order to replicate retail politicking in other small states might not work, or as Jay puts it, might not account for the “political economy” in each state. The front loaded system we’ve created may not be pretty, but it still protects the role played by Iowa and New Hampshire (or at the very least can’t be blamed entirely for diminishing it).

Cross posted here and here.