The Not-So Primaries

The advent of Super Duper Tuesday.

October 2007

On Tuesday, February 5, at least 21 states, including Colorado, will hold presidential primaries to decide the Democratic and Republican nominees. By the end of the day, each party will probably know its presumptive nominee. This, remember, will be seven months before the parties' nominating conventions (August 2008: Democrats in Denver, Republicans in Minneapolis) and a whopping nine months before the actual election.

"Super Tuesday" used to be an early March event, when many states held their primaries and a candidate could cement his or her nomination. This year, however, nearly half of the states (including heavyweights like California and New York) moved their primaries a month earlier in a bid to actually matter.

It's understandable for states to want greater primary relevance, says Allan Lichtman, a presidential campaign expert at American University. After all, who wants to hold a primary on June 3, more than four months after Iowa and New Hampshire have decided on a candidate? (Sorry, Montana.) But he likens the primaries rush to a tragedy of the commons. "Everyone is pursuing their own goal," Lichtman says of these states, "and in doing so, is spoiling the public interest."

The original purpose of primary season was to give candidates time to move from state to state, create a base of support, and even allow for a dark-horse candidate to emerge. A party's convention served as the culmination of a candidacy, rather than a ceremonial coronation. But in this increasingly front-loaded system, candidates can't be everywhere at the same time. This means that name-brand, nationally recognized politicians will be headed to the largest states and will have an easier time stamping out lesser-known grassroots contenders. Fittingly enough, February sweeps will also leave voters nearly a year to think about their party's decision. When one failed joke can mean death by YouTube, that's an eternity.

The last surprise? The vice-presidential question mark. The presumptive nominee has until the convention to announce his or her choice for veep. Can you say, "Ken Salazar?"