David Broder laments the frontloading of the presidential primary calendars in both parties, calling it “insane” and a “mad rush to judgment.” According to Broder, “a selection system that used to begin in March now is over in February — at the latest.” And he thinks that’s bad because (1) it will force Democrats and Republicans alike to pick a winner early based on necessarily limited information; and (2) it will create a nine-month general election campaign that will leave voters “exhausted” and force contenders to raise even more money than they already have to raise.
Hugh Hewitt respectfully disagrees. He does not disagree with Broder that the nominations will be locked up by February 2008, but he argues that (1) it is good to have larger states playing a more prominent role alongside Iowa and New Hampshire, because larger states tend to present a broader subset of the issues that will drive opinion nationally; and (2) the need to cultivate the support of opinion leaders in many different localities early will increase the influence of bloggers and talk radio hosts, at the expense of the mainstream media.
The assumption shared by Broder and Hewitt, of course, is that presidential elections will continue to be two-horse contests for the foreseeable future. Recently, however, I heard an intriguing argument to the contrary from a person whom I’ve always regarded as a savvy observer of the horse-race side of politics. The thesis is that 2008 will be a very favorable year for an independent candidate, for a number of reasons. Among them: (1) there is no eligible incumbent or heir apparent in either party, wihch has induced many different candidates to enter the race; (2) the major-party nominations will indeed be sewn up nine months before the election; and (3) many of the most credible front-runners either generate or have the potential to generate relatively high “negatives,” due in some cases to vigorous intra-party disagreements about the war in Iraq, abortion law, or stem cell research, and due in other cases perhaps to novel issues of race, sex, or religion. Put these factors together, and they add up to a substantial number of seriously disappointed, if not outright disaffected, activists in each major party come March 2008. And with the nominating contests in both major parties drained of any suspense, and eight or nine months available for organizing and campaigning, wouldn’t the stage be nicely set for a latter-day Ross Perot to tap into the disaffection and forge a centrist alliance — especially one focused on reforming the system that has given the two major parties such total hegemony? In fact, wouldn’t it be prudent for some of the most prolific of the current fundraisers to hold some resources back for a “Plan B” run as an independent? It worked for Joe Lieberman. And this cycle, there is even a fairly large and growing organization whose main purpose is to get a centrist, “unity” ticket on the ballot in the next presidential election.
I make no prediction, because I claim no special ability as a forecaster in such matters. But I find the argument pretty persuasive, and the possibility quite intriguing.