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.