WASHINGTON -- When Maine holds its Democratic presidential caucuses today, it will be the 12th state in the past 21 days to express its choice for the party's 2004 nomination. In the next 23 days, 17 more states will do the same, by which time the nominee is likely to be known.
This rush to judgment results from the determination of the party's political insiders like Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe that the 2004 Democratic standard-bearer be identified as soon as possible. The rationale is that an early start is imperative in the effort to unseat President Bush in November.
Collaborators in this objective are state party leaders eager to cash in on the political windfall of publicity and heavy campaign spending that goes to states that hold their delegate-selecting processes at the beginning of the election-year calendar. It's known as "front-loading."
The Democratic Party's charter creates a window from early February through early June in which the delegate selection must occur. In a bow to tradition, the charter gives exceptions to the kickoff Iowa precinct caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, held this year in January. The practical result is a stampede by many other states to the front of the calendar, to assure that their voters have a real voice in deciding who the Democratic nominee will be.
As Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts swept the Iowa and New Hampshire contests and won five of the seven delegate-selecting elections held Tuesday, he appeared well on his way to the nomination, five months before what would be a coronation at the national convention in Boston in July.
On March 2, 10 states -- including California, Maryland, New York and Ohio -- hold their contests and the odds are great the nomination will be clinched. That would leave the 21 other states holding primaries or caucuses afterward without any say in the decision-making process.
An early decision makes some sense in terms of providing ample time for unifying the competing candidates' camps and supporters. But achieving it comes at a high cost to the campaigns and to voters desiring more time to make a sober examination of the merits of those candidates.
First, the bunching up of the primaries and caucuses demands huge financial outlays at the outset. Contenders must be able to mount sufficient retail campaigning (the "ground war") and radio and television advertising (the "air war") to introduce themselves to the electorates in the various states.
As a practical matter, this commitment must be addressed well in advance of the election year in Iowa and New Hampshire. As has just been demonstrated, Kerry's early success, and disappointing showings by the early front-runner, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, affected public perceptions of both candidates when other states began voting.
With Iowa and New Hampshire first on the calendar, the contenders had plenty of time through the fall of last year to sell themselves in those two states. Voters in both states enjoyed a wealth of personal exposure to them, to their issue positions and to their advertising. The old story about voters there saying they were undecided because they had only met each of the candidates a few times was only a slight exaggeration.
But after that came the stampede. Tuesday, voters in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina essentially had a week to experience modest exposure to those candidates who chose to campaign in one or more of those states.
Except for Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who chose to spend nearly all that time in South Carolina, the other competitors did their best to show themselves in the other states they gauged held their best chances.
Kerry, riding his early momentum, conducted a fly-around in the hope of achieving a sweep or near-sweep. Dean, back on his heels, visited South Carolina only for a televised debate, basically leap-frogging Tuesday's contests and focusing on Michigan and Washington state, which voted yesterday, and Wisconsin, voting on Feb. 17.
Front-loading is not new. In 1996, 32 state contests were bunched into the first six weeks of the primary season.
Dole thereafter was severely handicapped in competing against Clinton in the months leading up to the Republican convention. Only later did he receive more federal funds for the general election.
This year's Democratic nominee faces the same prospect against Bush, though Kerry, if he is that nominee, has rejected federal financing for the pre-convention period, enabling him to dip into his substantial personal fortune.
In the 1950s, before the proliferation of state primaries and caucuses designed to encourage more grass-roots participation in the selection process, only a relatively few states held them. The obstacle course then usually consisted of contests in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Oregon and California, with perhaps a few other stops along the way. Party leaders played a much greater role in the selection, and candidates usually spent more time courting them than wooing average voters.
Even as late as the 1970s, the primaries were usually spaced weeks apart, providing plenty of time for the competing candidates to make their cases to the voters in each state. If a candidate stumbled in one contest, he could try to recover before the next one. At the same time, the news media had the time to help the voters digest the political significance and ramifications of what was happening from state to state.
The whole nomination process, however, soon began earlier and earlier in the year before the election, turning presidential campaigns into marathons. Then, as more primaries and caucuses were front-loaded, the race evolved into the sprint that it has now become in the first weeks of the election year.
The sensible solution is creation of regional primary days, spaced perhaps four weeks apart from late winter to early spring. By placing mega-states with huge numbers of delegates late in the calendar, it would take longer in the season for any candidate to accumulate the majority needed for nomination. So there would be less incentive for a state to front-load to have a real voice in picking the nominee.
There's always a danger now that in the rush, some damaging information may surface about the prospective nominee that will make the party wish it had taken a longer, less-frenetic look at the product of front-loading.
As long as the get-it-over-with mentality prevails, the prospect for 2008 is for another pell-mell dash to decision by frazzled candidates and campaign staffs, often at the expense of less-informed, turned-off voters.