It’s Time for a Florida-First Primary

April 4th, 2011 at 10:44 am David Frum | 37 Comments |

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At the end of World War II, a new secretary of state faced a tough management decision.

The State Department’s old quarters had become desperately cramped and crowded. What should be done? An aide proposed moving the department to a new building. The secretary of state asked: “Arguments in favor?”

New quarters would be more spacious, better adapted to modern technology.

“Arguments against?”

Tradition.

The secretary snapped: “Move.”

The secretary happened to be George C. Marshall, one of the greatest military men in U.S. history. Decisions came naturally to him.

The U.S. presidential election system could use a Marshall today.

Florida has proposed shifting its primary into January, making the state the first primary in the nation.

Other early primary states have protested ferociously. South Carolina’s Republican Party chairman has demanded that Florida abandon its plans — or be punished by having the 2012 Republican National Convention move from its currently planned site, Tampa Bay.

Florida seems doomed to lose its bid. Too bad. A Florida-first primary is a fantastic idea.

The current American primary schedule is not the work of the Founding Fathers. The schedule is the unintended consequence of a hodgepodge of habits and coincidences. But this unintended schedule has terrible real world consequences.

Consider this: If you were to ask a panel of Democratic and Republican economists and policy analysts to name the single most wasteful, foolish and destructive public policy of the United States, they would almost certainly identify the ethanol subsidy high on the list.

The U.S. pays a huge subsidy to transform corn into motor fuel. Not only does the subsidy waste money, but it artificially drives up the price of food all over the planet. Many economic studies have cited ethanol production as the single most important driver of recent world food price increases.

Why does this ridiculous program exist? The short answer is: the Iowa caucuses. You want to be a major party nominee for president? You’d better convince yourself that ethanol is indispensable.

Take Barack Obama for example: As a U.S. senator, he was one of ethanol’s most reliable defenders. So much so, that the American Corn Growers Association endorsed him for president in 2008, only the second endorsement in the group’s history.

It’s possible to win a presidential nomination without winning the Iowa caucuses: Ronald Reagan did in 1980.

It’s possible to win without coming first in New Hampshire: Obama did in 2008.

But it’s near impossible to win without either. The Republicans and Democrats of these two states have been granted radically disproportionate sway over their parties’ presidential selection process.

This sway biases the nation’s politics in unhealthy ways:

This is an urbanized country; 80% of Americans live in metropolitan areas as defined by the census. Iowa contains two cities of more than 100,000 people (Des Moines and Cedar Rapids), New Hampshire only one, and that barely (Manchester).

The United States is a very unequal country. Iowa and New Hampshire look like an older and more egalitarian America. In the country as a whole, 13% are poor, the same percentage as in Florida — only 11% in Iowa and 7% in New Hampshire. In the country as a whole, 17% lack health insurance. Again only 10% do in Iowa and New Hampshire. Only one of the Forbes 400 lives in New Hampshire (No. 130); none of the Forbes 400 lives in Iowa.

The non-Hispanic white population of the U.S. has dropped to about 65%. New Hampshire is 92% non-Hispanic white, Iowa 90%.

Americans are hard-pressed by home foreclosures. Yet the foreclosure crisis has by and large bypassed Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which have foreclosure rates substantially below the national average.

There are other reasons of course beyond Iowa and New Hampshire why U.S. policy seems to favor farmers over city dwellers and why it cares so little about extremes of wealth and poverty.

But surely Iowa and New Hampshire are a big part of the answer.

Florida looks a lot more like the America in which most Americans live.

Even the one metric by which Florida looks unusual — the high number of elderly — is shared with the two existing first-in-the-nation states: 17.2% of Floridians are older than 65, but so are 14.8% of Iowans and 13.5% of New Hampshirites. (The national average is 12.9%.)

A primary system that started in Florida would press presidential candidates to talk more about issues about which most Americans care.

In 2012, for example, it will matter that Iowa and New Hampshire have unemployment rates well below the national average, while Florida’s is above.

Al Gore was ridiculed in 2000 for suggesting that the length of commute was becoming a major problem for Americans. Floridians would not find the issue laughable. Floridians on average face the ninth toughest commute in the nation, Iowans the sixth easiest.

Champions of the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire often celebrate these states’ proud traditions of retail politics. But it’s those states’ retail politics that are precisely the problem. Cycle after cycle, presidential candidates spend two years in the living rooms of Iowa and New Hampshire answering the same questions (if Democrats) about ethanol, Medicare, the goodness of teachers’ unions and the badness of wars. Or if Republicans, they spend those years in living rooms answering questions about ethanol, Medicare, the goodness of guns and the badness of abortion.

Nobody ever asks a question about coral reefs. Or the future of the tourism industry. Or the issues facing communities that host military bases.

By the time candidates have to engage the voters in the 90% of the country where hockey is not a major sport, they have ceased to spend their time in living rooms — ceased to hear from anybody other than consultants and pollsters.

This system badly needs a shake-up. So count me as strongly in favor of Florida first in 2012. And then maybe — Michigan first in 2016?

Originally published at CNN.com.


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37 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    The secretary happened to be George C. Marshall, one of the greatest military men in U.S. history.

    Er…so why in 1948-52 were Republicans and neo conservatives (or their forerunners) calling him a communist fellow traveller who had deliberately lost China

  • skyclemons

    Excellent analysis! But I think a major point was missed regarding the ethanol subsidy. The fact that refiners are forced to add ethanol to the gasoline we purchase (up to 10% in most cases) to further subsidize corn farmers is absolutely insane. On one hand, the government is pressing auto companies to produce vehicles with better mileage. On the other hand, they insist adding ethanol to the gasoline we have to purchase, the addition of which substantially reduces mileage. Why are we so stupid as to allow this to continue?

    • balconesfault

      On the other hand, they insist adding ethanol to the gasoline we have to purchase, the addition of which substantially reduces mileage.

      Substantially? Slightly. And that reduction in milage is simply related to the fact that a gallon of ethanol will propel a vehicle a little less far down the road than a gallon of gasoline will.

      However – if your concern is with reducing the need for oil imports – what’s going to do better:
      a) burning 10 gallons of gasoline
      b) burning 9 gallons of gasoline and 1 gallon of ethanol

      Do some research, and you might learn a little something more than you’ll get from listening to Rush Limbaugh or Neal Boortz.

  • mlindroo

    Well, I like the general idea of moving away from IA, NH and to a more “representative” state. Florida is a bit too big, though … Ideally, the primaries should start in a small state in order to enable less well-funded but attractive candidates to compete.

    As I recall, Oklahoma resembled “middle America” more than any other state in the 1980s. What’s the most representative state today in terms of demographics?

    MARCU$

    • Watusie

      Illinois. However, Barack Obama is from there and therefore it is the embodiment of evil.

      As for Oklahoma – it could give SC a run for its money in terms of its nuttiness.

  • Elvis Elvisberg

    In fairness to Iowa and NH, they do take their boon/responsibility very seriously.

    But yeah, that doesn’t mean it actually makes any sense for the United States. Thanks for the well-reasoned, well-substantiated column.

    Shift the primaries, and the disproportionate Senate, move toward a more rational American politics. These will probably both happen … right around never.

  • Watusie

    Having spent a great deal of time in all the states mentioned, plus many more, I have to say, I don’t get it – Florida is just as non-representative of the rest of the nation as Iowa and New Hampshire, only in a different way.

    Much, much older – your handwaving about this notwithstanding, it is an issue. Retirees are a growth industry in Florida, in a way they aren’t in any other state other than Arizona. 17% of the population is 65 or over, that is 3 points higher than Iowa, a not-insignificant difference. And whereas Florida is #1 in number of retirees, Iowa is 7th, but New Hampshire is 36th – not really in the same league.

    And yes, Iowa’s devotion to the ethanol subsidy is an abomination – but you are just going to swap it for Florida’s full-on commitment to sugar subsidies.

    Replacing Iowa with Florida would just be replacing one place that isn’t very nice to go in January with a place that is nice to go in January. I suppose that suits journos, but I can’t really see it as much of a master stroke that is good for the nation. It is just a like-for-like swap.

    And, it has to be said – given Frum’s Israel-First obsession, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s looking for a state with a more visible and politically active Jewish population.

    But if what you want is something that is better for this nation – why not leave NH in place and replace Iowa with Ohio or Pennsylvania?

    • ottovbvs

      And yes, Iowa’s devotion to the ethanol subsidy is an abomination – but you are just going to swap it for Forida’s full-on commitment to sugar subsidies.

      Paris is worth a mass? Just because presidential candidates proclaim undying love for ethanol when campaigning in Iowa it has little effect on their actions when in office. Iowa is just one of a constellation of corn producing states that ensure the continuation of the ethanol abomination. It has little to do with the fact that the first presidential primary is held there and is certainly no reason to disqualify Iowa from being first. DF’s objections to Iowa don’t have much to do with ethanol as he tacitly concedes with this comment:

      [i] There are other reasons of course beyond Iowa and New Hampshire why U.S. policy seems to favor farmers over city dwellers and why it cares so little about extremes of wealth and poverty.

      But surely Iowa and New Hampshire are a big part of the answer.[/i]

      In fact, of course, they are totally insignificant part of the answer.

      • Watusie

        Thanks for the reminder of one of history’s all-time great lines.

        • ottovbvs

          What do yo do Watusie, do you work in politics as a volunteer or somenthing? You’re joining balconesfault, indy, terry et al in my gallery of sharp knives posting here. And you’re familiar with Henry of Navarre. To be fair I suspect Frum is also which makes his obtuseness at times even more objectionable.

        • Watusie

          Undergraduate degree in medieval history! But that was years ago. I own and run a small manufacturing business.

    • stevebeste

      Trends show that the Elderly are moving out of Florida as they grow frailer, moving back to family. Newer retirees are finding states other than Florida more attractive.

  • Primrose

    Excellent article. While I wish all the primaries were pushed back I think a rotating system of firsts from states that actually represent the country is a good idea, a very good idea.

    And really, as late as 2000 Gore was ridiculed for saying commutes were a problem. Other than farmers, who on Earth could argue with that? Even the south is having commuting problems.

  • Primrose

    Elvis, no body is suggesting that Iowa and New Hampshire are irrational because of the people but because their concerns are not the same as the nations.

    Watusie, since Mr. Frum suggested Michigan in 2016, I think he met your point on the elderly. But even with the elderly Florida represents the concerns of America more neatly than Iowa and NH. Demographically, it is more similar. There are a lot of people who lived near urban centers and there is actually quite a bit of young families moving down there.

    Personally, I think the entire system should be changed. So that the first primaries have at least one state from each region, and balanced in such a way that all primary days actually count in terms of elections. The last Presidential primary was the first time I had a chance for my vote to count at all, usually its already decided by then.

  • Smargalicious

    I agree. NH will just have to do a hissy fit when they get trumped.

  • PatrickQuint

    It’s worth noting that the Republicans tend to win with the elderly.

    Also, a move to Florida would mean a move to the home state of Rush Limbaugh.

    Another note. Both Iowa and New Hampshire went Democratic in 2008, by about 10 points each. Florida voted Obama as well, but by a much smaller margin.

    Staggered primaries seem like a contrivance to me regardless. It helps to give candidates with less money a shot at it, but my instincts are to say that primaries should be simultaneous across the country, much like a general election and for much the same reasons.

  • hisgirlfriday

    Take Barack Obama for example: As a U.S. senator, he was one of ethanol’s most reliable defenders. So much so, that the American Corn Growers Association endorsed him for president in 2008, only the second endorsement in the group’s history.

    Obama’s support of ethanol subsidies in Congress wasn’t because he knew he’d run for president and wanted to win over Iowa voters. It was because he represented a state with the headquarters of ADM that is the second largest corn-producing state in the country.

  • ottovbvs

    Undergraduate degree in medieval history! But that was years ago. I own and run a small manufacturing business.

    Watusie: I hope business is good. I was involved in widget making for a long time. One of the great mysteries to me is why so many businessmen (big and small) perceive the Republican party as best for their interests. At the moment you’d have to be certifiably insane to think any sort of deflationary moves are a good idea for business but many do apparently. It’s often said working class Republicans vote against their own interests but it’s equally true of Republican businessmen who are supposed to be more intelligent. Which is not to say that issue like deficits aren’t important but they need to be prioritized which I consider the principal management skill.

    • indy

      Oddly, I run a small high-tech firm. I, too, frequently wonder why so many businessmen identify so strongly with Republicans, particularly now. Some of their economic ideas are certifiably insane, as you say.

      • ottovbvs

        It’s tribal. Wagoner at GM was classic case. If ever a corporation would have benefited from universal healthcare it was GM. In the 90′s when he was CFO they had a seminar for their “business partners” (ie. vendors) and at some panel I asked him about this issue and he just danced around it. He just wouldn’t admit it was the best solution for them and business generally and essentially blew me off, probably why they tried to cut our prices a few months later. I really think he might have got blackballed at his country club if he’d come out for reality and it’s the same with most businessmen I’m sure. I also remember being on some delegation to Washington in connection with reauthorising a highways bill, and highway bills are Roosevelt New Dealism writ large bellieve me, but do these guys see the connection in bar room discussions? Nah.

        • think4yourself

          I’m a small business owner and for years I’ve been incensed that the GOP and Chamber of Commerce have sided with large health-related business (Insurance, pharma, hospitals) against small businesses as it relates to healthcare. Small business and sole proprietorships have no leverage against these oligopolies and Republican solutions have all been laughable and cleary designed to protect the big companies. I Also believe the GOP has not really been fiscally conservative as for the last 30 years they have not been interested in balancing the budget – instead only interested in lowering taxes, especially for the most well off. If they decided to be truly fiscally responsible and decide that small government also means limiting intrusion in personal behavior – i.e. ending the culture wars, I’d seriously vote GOP.

        • ottovbvs

          If they decided to be truly fiscally responsible and decide that small government also means limiting intrusion in personal behavior – i.e. ending the culture wars, I’d seriously vote GOP.

          But this would mean going against their core beliefs, why do you think I stopped voting for Republicans.

  • hisgirlfriday

    Oh and I strongly question anyone who would recommend putting Florida voters in charge of such a big responsibility of choosing who should be the presidential frontrunner. Didn’t they just elect a governor who was CEO of a company that STOLE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS from the government in Medicare/Medicaid fraud?

    Big states don’t have the attention span for the sort of retail politics that first in the nation primaries and caucuses entail and require. Sure the current set-up has its drawbacks in terms of parochial interests triumphing over national interests as a result (not just ethanol, but us not having any ability to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain thanks to the Nevada caucuses would be another example) yet I think the current set-up as a whole benefits the entire country.

    You have Midwestern concerns represented by Iowa. New England concerns represented by New Hampshire. Southwestern/Western concerns represented by Nevada. Southern concerns represented by South Carolina.

    As for the idea that without Florida up front, we don’t have anyone tending to Florida’s interests… GMAFB. If presidents didn’t already care too much about Florida voters in relation to the rest of the country we’d have been able to normalize relations with Cuba when we did so with China and Russia.

  • iveyguy

    David,

    Let’s keep hockey out of it!

    • Moderate

      I’m fine with the idea of moving the first primary/caucus, but the selection of Florida seems self-interested due to Frum’s work for Giuliani’s 2008 campaign (strategy: putting all of their eggs in the Sunshine State). So even if the move to Florida were a good idea on its own merits, Frum probably shouldn’t be the one to present it.

      I don’t think the move is merited, for that matter. As mlindroo pointed out, Florida is large: smaller candidates would have little chance of competing in advertising. Frum probably sees this as a feature; I see it as a bug.

      The first state to pop into mind was Colorado, but that’s probably still too large.

  • gmckee1985

    Yeah, Iowa is more evangelical than most of the country, and New Hampshire is wealthier than the rest of the country.

    Primaries should be focused on “normal” states, because “normal” voters are those the Republicans have to win in order to win the White House. By normal I mean middle class suburban voters who aren’t tied to either party.

    Florida, Ohio, Virginia..those are the types of states which should hold more sway.

  • Rob_654

    California First – they are the big dogs on the block – let them have first crack – I bet you’d see a better Republican field if they had to start off in California.

    • think4yourself

      Much as I’d like to think so, the CA GOP also insists on purity tests for it’s candidates for office which is why they are almost irrelevant in CA politics. There is no place for moderates in the party so the Dems hold all the statewide offices and almost 2/3rds of the Legislature which isn’t healthy.

  • dodongo

    As a hockey fan living in a nontraditional market (San Francisco / San Jose) the end of this article is mildly offensive (go Sharks!) :)

    Otherwise, this is a brilliant point. I’d never thought of Florida as anything other than electoral foe, especially since the 2000 debacle. But you’re spot on here — the situations Iowa and New Hampshire put us in on a regular basis is pretty awful.

  • Saladdin

    Riiiiight, because having a big state go first will definitely keep money from influencing politics.

  • CentristNYer

    While I applaud the effort to remove so much power from the hands of one or two small states, the real issue isn’t the venue so much as it’s the kind of people who actually come out to vote. Primaries (and particularly caucuses) tend to draw hyper-partisan voters who generally reward candidates with hard line positions on red meat issues. And even if those fringe candidates don’t prevail, during the course of the campaign they manage to pack the convention with enough crazies to drive the candidate — and his platform — further to the edge.

    (For what it’s worth, the Dems have done a far better job marginalizing their influence than the Republicans, who bend over backwards to keep their fringe powerfully engaged.)

    I tend to doubt that advancing any one state — particularly Florida — to the front of the line will improve the outcome, but I do agree that the primary system needs a pretty dramatic overhaul.

  • gmckee1985

    California is a trainwreck. Definitely wouldn’t want those people having a hand in picking the GOP nominee considering the type of people they elect in that state.

  • JohnnyA

    “I tend to doubt that advancing any one state — particularly Florida — to the front of the line will improve the outcome, but I do agree that the primary system needs a pretty dramatic overhaul.” – CentristNYer

    Agreed. Personally, I’d like to see a mix of different states share the first primary date, changing with every presidential election, announced less than a year in advance, to make it a little harder for special interests to ‘game’ the system. It has never sat well with me that a handful of states effectively decide the presidential candidates for the rest of the country. Maybe it is unworkable, but to me it only seems fair that any state should be able to choose any primary date they want, including the first date.

    “Primaries (and particularly caucuses) tend to draw hyper-partisan voters who generally reward candidates with hard line positions on red meat issues.”

    Having done most of my voting from VA and MD, I can’t remember an election where the primary was not decided long before I had a chance to vote on it. If you were not hyper-partisan, you may see it as a waste of time to vote for a primary that has already been decided. And I can see how a hyper-partisan in an early voting state would be extra motivated to vote as they get to decide the candidates for the rest of the country.

  • nhthinker

    NH will remain the nation’s first primary. Don’t worry your little heads about it.

    Move along…

    wiki:
    Since 1977, New Hampshire has fought hard to keep its timing as the first primary (while Iowa has the first caucus a few days sooner.) State law requires that its primary must be the first in the nation (it had been the first by tradition since 1920).[6] As a result, the state has moved its primary earlier in the year to remain the first. The primary was held on the following dates: 1952-1968, second Tuesday in March; 1972, first Tuesday in March; 1976-1984, fourth Tuesday in February; 1988-1996, third Tuesday in February; 2000, first Tuesday in February (February 1); 2004, fourth Tuesday in January (January 27). The shifts have been to compete with changing primary dates in other states. The primary date for 2008 continued the trend; it was held January 8, the second Tuesday in January.

    “Americans are hard-pressed by home foreclosures. Yet the foreclosure crisis has by and large bypassed Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which have foreclosure rates substantially below the national average”

    That’s because Iowa and NH residents by and large identify with the Ant in the Aesop’s fable the Ant and the Grasshopper. Frum wants the first primaries in states where more people think like Grasshoppers.

    • Cforchange

      Foreclosure nonsense – you probably have a sizable political population just so they can influence the candidate selection to favor their political desires. That’s what reordering the primaries would do – these folks would jump ship and claim residency in Florida.
      Too bad the majority has caught on to the political game. We all want our say – too much political control is how BO was elected – the electorate didn’t like the Clinton control nor did they like the Bush dynasty.
      Awe come on – let’s really shake things up and let NH step aside. Now as for Iowa, they should simply succeed from the union. It would give them plenty of opportunity to pursue creationism to the fullest.

  • LISGUY

    Quick thought: I wouldn’t be opposed to a Florida first primary because Iowa’s politics tends to sway fairly easily between extremes and New Hampshire’s primary just strikes me as lending itself to outlier results. Regardless of which state would go first, I would be far more interested in pushing the calendar back and starting the primary season in late February or March and I would also like to see “Super Tuesday” states broken up and spread out as well.

    All in all, Having a different starting point for primary season would do the country well.

  • Cforchange

    Totally in agreement here – the primary order needs reordered. It would certainly bring fresh air to DC and to the GOP which is in dire need of a spring cleaning. Not having a meaningful participation in the primary has contributed to my political dissatisfaction. So how many others took the indy jump because really what does party affiliation mean if you yourself are not represented.

    Maybe someone will listen after a 2012 loss. Perhaps the GOP was counting on the southern strategy to prevail but it appears the population trends of the late 2000′s are reversing themselves. The northeast is stabilizing and even showing modest growth.

    If there were such a thing as a forward thinking GOP – they would prepare themselves for the new population trends by letting FL take the lead. What’s at stake if they don’t – probably most of the 2010 gains.