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Power to the Powerful!

The DNC's new primary calendar is designed to keep the rabble out.

12:00 AM, Sep 7, 2006 • By ANDREW CLINE
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BACK WHEN HOWARD DEAN represented the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" he spoke passionately about the importance of having the presidential nominating process begin in two small, rural states in which outsider candidates with little money or establishment support would stand a realistic shot of competing on a level playing field with the well-funded insiders. So why, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has he led his party to abandon a core democratic (with a big and small D) principle and create a new nominating calendar for 2008 that virtually eliminates the chances of any outsider candidate winning the nomination?

First, a little bit about New Hampshire.

New Hampshire is the last New England state to retain the extraordinary tradition of self-government that dates back to colonial times. There are 400 members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Districts are so small (roughly 3,100 people) that they can be won with less than $100 in campaign spending. College students regularly win seats in the New Hampshire House. The next smallest House districts are Delaware's, which contain about 13,000 people.

Almost all taxes are set and levied at the local level, and the state is dotted with small towns that still have their budgets decided by residents at town meetings each spring. At the local and state level, executives are weak and legislative bodies are strong. Power is kept as close to the people as possible.

When it comes to selecting presidential candidates, Granite Staters do not just watch debates or campaign ads. The New Hampshire primary, a staple in American politics since 1920 and existing in its modern form since 1952, consists of a long series of small events designed for direct interaction between candidates and voters. Presidential candidates actually campaign door-to-door in New Hampshire. Though they do run plenty of radio and TV ads, the real campaign takes place in restaurants, churches, town halls, and homes. As a result, roughly three-quarters of New Hampshire voters turn out for the primary and half say they actively seek information about candidates to aide in their decision-making. A quarter of them have actually spoken with a candidate one-on-one before they cast their vote.

Then there is the geography. New Hampshire is only 100 miles across at its widest point, and 200 miles top to bottom. Gubernatorial races can cost as little as $1 million. It is easy and inexpensive to run a statewide campaign.

Combine these factors and you have an ideal place to test presidential candidates. Voters are politically knowledgeable, campaigning is inexpensive, and candidates cannot hide--they have to endure months of direct interaction with regular citizens. The virtue of this system is touted not just by New Hampshire hotel owners, but by politicians, aides, and journalists who've been through the process.

Dean used to think so as well.

"I am absolutely committed to New Hampshire having the first primary and Iowa having the first caucus,'' Dean said when he filed for the New Hampshire primary in November of 2003. "The reason I'm committed is that candidates like me would never have a chance without being able to look people in the eye and shake their hands and let them say what they think."

Now Dean has changed his tune. After Kerry's loss in 2004, Dean's DNC sought a scapegoat. As usual, the party focused not on its own message, but on political mechanics. Since Democrats can't possibly be wrong ideologically, something in the process must be malfunctioning. That something, the DNC decided, was New Hampshire.

New Hampshire--96 percent Caucasian and with one of the highest per-capita incomes in the nation--was proclaimed too white and affluent. The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee began working on a new primary calendar that would give more weight to minorities and regular people, or so the official line went.

On August 19, the DNC approved the calendar submitted by the committee. It placed Nevada's caucus before New Hampshire's primary, but after Iowa's caucus, and South Carolina's primary a week after New Hampshire's. Nevada is nearly 25 percent Hispanic, and South Carolina nearly 30 percent black. The Democrats trumpeted their commitment to diversity. "Part of moving America in a new direction is selecting a presidential nominee who represents the values, issues and concerns of our country's diverse population," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid declared.

Of course, Nevada isn't exactly representative of America. Nevada is 24 percent Hispanic and 7 percent black. The United States is 12 percent black and 14.5 percent Hispanic. Giving this heavily Hispanic state the second nominating contest will force candidates to cater to this emerging demographic. Also, Nevada is heavily union and just happens to be the home of the most powerful Democrat in the country.

But whatever changes the new calendar might cause at the margins for Hispanic and black voter importance, its first and foremost effect is to eliminate an outsider's chance of winning the 2008 nomination.

UNTIL NOW, an outsider candidate could compete in either Iowa or New Hampshire (or both) with little money or name recognition. A win in either state would propel him into a position to raise the big money necessary to compete in the states that followed.

The new calendar crams four contests into two weeks: Iowa on January 14, Nevada on January 19, New Hampshire on January 22, and South Carolina on January 29. It is 1,600 miles from Des Moines to Carson City--2,900 miles from Carson City to Concord--and just shy of 1,000 miles from Concord to Columbia. It will be nearly impossible for a candidate to compete in all four primaries without a large war chest. And there is no way a candidate can do any serious retail politicking in all four states. The campaigns will have to concentrate heavily on ad buys and endorsements from large organizations--such as unions and other traditional Democratic establishment groups.

If this calendar remains intact the nomination will be all but decided by January 30. Which is entirely the point. The DNC wants a nominee early in the process so that more money and energy can be spent on the general election. Front-loading the process with four contests 5,500 miles and 15 days apart will ensure this result.

SO MUCH FOR the "democratic" in Democratic party. And yet it gets even more ironic. The most vocal and impassioned backers of this new calendar have been the very liberal activists whom the DNC is trying to marginalize.

By presenting the calendar reshuffle as a needed correction to the unearned privilege New Hampshire's rural whites have enjoyed because of an unjustified tradition, the DNC recast the outsider's only opportunity to win a presidential nomination as the ultimate populist nightmare--a sinister combination of racism, unearned privilege and mindless tradition.

The netroots wing of the party has enthusiastically supported diminishing New Hampshire's influence. One of the most vociferous proponents of changing the primary was Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who opposed the old calendar because "Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative of the nation." That's the same Markos who consulted for Dean's 2004 campaign and has strongly opposed Hillary Clinton--who may benefit most from the new calendar.

Zuniga and other left-wing bloggers have railed against New Hampshire for being too white and too privileged while simultaneously decrying the influence of money and Washington insiders in presidential politics. Without realizing it, they have helped make a run for president more expensive and less democratic, thus diminishing their own influence and consolidating the power of Washington insiders. All in the name of the people.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.