WASHINGTON—In the not-so-distant past, general-election campaigns for president started on Labor Day, kicking off a nine-week contest between the Democratic and Republican nominees.
Now, thanks in part to action taken Thursday, party nominations may be settled effectively by next Valentine's Day, sending the two major-party nominees off on a nine-month slugfest for the White House.
California on Thursday moved its presidential primary up to next Feb. 5, joining a torrent of states that are rushing to accelerate voting in primaries and caucuses for party nominees.
After a brief campaign in January in which candidates will interact with voters face to face in four small states—Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina—next year's presidential campaign is likely to explode into a de facto national primary the first week in February, with as many as 23 states voting Feb. 5.
Some state legislatures are still weighing what to do, but if all those that are considering Feb. 5 end up choosing it, those states would comprise 192 million Americans, 2 out of every 3, more than enough to effectively settle the nominations.
"Is this any way to pick a president? The answer is no. This is ridiculous," said Bill Galvin, the secretary of state in Massachusetts and co-chairman of the National Association of Secretaries of State's Subcommittee on Presidential Primaries.
He said the voting would come too early and too fast for people to pay meaningful attention.
"Most Americans won't have a say in choosing the presidential nominee, and those that do will have a few weeks at most to make up their minds," Galvin said.
Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign and helped design the current calendar, said she thought it might magnify the voices of voters in the first four states. The Democratic National Committee added Nevada and South Carolina to the early voting to give more say to Hispanics, African-Americans and Southerners. Until now, the largely white states of Iowa and New Hampshire have dominated the process.
Yet by letting Nevada and South Carolina move up their voting days, the party may have encouraged other states to seek a bigger say by moving their voting to Feb. 5, the first date allowed under national party rules.
"The floodgates are now open," Brazile said. "There's no question it's opened up a Pandora's box."
The trend could indeed amplify the voices of the four early-voting states, which draw so much media attention to the winners that it could set them up for a nationwide sweep Feb. 5.
But whether candidates sweep or split the Feb. 5 Mega-Tuesday voting, loading so many state contests on that single early day will change the way that parties pick their nominees and the country picks its presidents.
A Feb. 5 coast-to-coast mega-primary puts a premium on candidates with well-known names, deep campaign treasuries and extensive organizations. That's yet another edge for front-running candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, both Democrats, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both Republicans.
To campaign in simultaneous primaries in California, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New Jersey, for example, a candidate will be forced to rely on expensive TV advertising and an extensive volunteer organization.
Candidates from small states with limited campaign budgets will have an even harder time breaking through than in the past. The new schedule could build an insurmountable wall for today's second-tier candidates, such as Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat, or Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a Republican.
Signing the legislation that moved up his state's primary date to Feb. 5, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said it would give the country's largest state a bigger say in picking the next president. The state hasn't played a meaningful role in presidential nominations since 1972.
"It's already accomplished what we set out to do," said state Sen. Ron Calderon, a sponsor of the bill. "The candidates for president are already in California. They're already talking with us. Before they would just come, raise money and leave."
Yet as ever more states move their voting to Feb. 5, the trend threatens to induce the opposite effect, making it less likely that voters in those states will get a chance to really look over the candidates close up. The candidates could be too busy flying to media venues in too many states to court voters one on one, the traditional practice in early primaries.
The National Association of Secretaries of State urges rotating regional primaries. For more, go to www.nass.org
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