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Our Views: Primary shuffle
Ga. wisely settles on Super Tuesday while other states race to cut in line
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

Georgia voters will get their first say on the next White House occupant March 6, the day known as Super Tuesday for its mass of scheduled primaries.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp made that call Thursday, choosing to put Georgia in the best possible spot in the calendar.

At one time, the first contest, the Iowa caucuses, was held in late January, followed by the New Hampshire primary a couple weeks later. Yet these days, the contests keep moving earlier in the year and the schedule becomes more jumbled with each election. 

On Friday, Florida scheduled its primary for Jan. 31, leading several other states to move up in the pecking order and keep their traditional spot at the front of the line.

The resultant mess has both parties threatening to punish states who jump ahead by slicing the number of delegates seated at their conventions. Yet that’s hardly a disincentive since most nominations are locked up well before the conventions. As a result, many states seek to skip to the front to ensure their influence is felt. 

“My overall frustration is, we’ve got this set of rules that we’re not going to follow,” said Chad Connelly, GOP chairman in South Carolina, which is determined to hold the first primary in the South. “So it just means that the party’s rules have no teeth, and all these states can jump the date.”

Yet the reasons they do so are clear: Candidates in a competitive campaign raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars for advertising, organization and travel. States who are key to their chances are likely to get more of it.

In addition, candidates who need a state to secure victory will seek support from leaders in that state, who in turn can gain the ear of a new president and perhaps earn an appointment to the new administration. Note that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was governor of Iowa in 2008, when Barack Obama won its caucuses.

Thus, Kemp had a tough decision to make. By going too early, he would risk alienating party leaders and incurring penalties. By voting too late, after the race was decided, he would risk making Georgia’s primary an insignificant stop toward the nomination. 

Super Tuesday may be the ideal date for Georgia, even with many other primaries set that day. As Kemp noted, Georgia ranks third among the scheduled primaries that day in the number of delegates at stake. And as a strong Republican state in what now seems to be a wide-open race, the primary here could be competitive. Georgia even has two native sons in the race, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain.

Yet the states’ scramble to join the fray points out how there is no order to the primary system because the parties have lost control of it.

Keep in mind that primaries are not a real election, per se, but merely part of the nominating process. The winner isn’t guaranteed anything. For example, Georgia’s primary was won in 2008 by Mike Huckabee, who is now a cable TV talk show host. 

The primaries are a relatively new part of the process, in fact. At one time, parties picked their nominees at state conventions and caucuses, where party members — mostly officeholders and influential supporters — gathered to make their choice. 

Primaries at one time were “beauty contests,” with states’ delegates often not bound to vote for the same candidate the public preferred. The names on the ballots often were selected in those archaic “smoke-filled rooms” of lore, which some argue produced better leaders than what we have today.

That began to change in the 1970s, and over the years, popular vote has replaced the old method. Now you don’t even have to declare your party allegiance in Georgia and many other states; you’re free to head to the polls March 6 and vote for, or against, any candidate in either party. Thus, the nominating process has become less of a managed party function and now is a wide-open grab bag of state contests. 

One idea offered to fix this is to hold regional primaries, where a handful of adjacent states would hold primaries on the same day. That would allow candidates to travel more easily between them and saturate the TV and radio airwaves with ads across state lines. As it is now, candidates seeking votes for Super Tuesday will crisscross the country for days trying to cover all the states holding primaries that day.

Yet the fight then would be over which regions were allowed to go first and who was left at the back of the pack, knowing the field could be thinned and the race over after the first few contests.

Another idea would be to simply have a national primary after the early states vote, leaving ample time for the candidates to spread their money and messages around the country. But herding all the states into such a system is likely to be just as difficult as it is now. Someone will still want to break in the front of the line.

Or we can just let a messy formula stay as it is and make the best of it. Despite all the desires to make our political process less cluttered with nonsense and money, it is what it is. If nothing else, our primary system forces candidates to run a difficult gauntlet, hone their messages, manage a large, well-funded campaign and appeal to a wide cross-section of Americans from coast to coast.

In that sense, perhaps our fouled-up way of selecting a president is the perfect way to prepare our new leader for the chaos and multitasking he or she will ultimately face in the Oval Office.