The presidential nominating contest keeps creeping earlier and earlier into the election year. The Iowa caucuses are 16 days earlier than in 2004. The New Hampshire primary is 19 days earlier than in 2004. Before the first results, the media were already pushing the contenders around, predicting that most presidential campaigns are toast if they don't win in one of these states and in so doing are only advancing that perception.
All the talk of reforming the primary system -- to make it more logical, more rational, more regional, more representative, less tilted to traditional first states like Iowa and New Hampshire -- all of these do less for a rational nomination process than reforming the reporters and pundits who want to declare the whole race over from the first shot of the starting gun.
In 2004, John Kerry was estimated to have sealed the winning number of convention delegates by March 11. But the conventional media wisdom was talking him up as the Democratic champion and nominee after the primaries on Feb. 3. By Feb. 6, the Reuters wire service put out a story headlined "Kerry Presidency Seen (As) a Boon for U.S. Markets." Soon, CBS and other media outlets started investigating and attacking the National Guard record of President Bush, as if they were following the orders of Kerry advisers. The general election seemed already under way.
Voters should almost root for indecisive results in early states so as to avoid the general election campaign starting right after Martin Luther King Day. As it is, it will be hard to fail to see clear winners after the 22 states that vote on Feb. 5.
Reporters might protest that primary voters don't want a messy nominating battle or a brokered convention, so that once a candidate strings together a few primary wins, the later states just pile on to assure a smooth ride. That's a logical assumption. But the media's jackrabbit speed in declaring the race over helps accelerate the whole process and take the old-fashioned patriotic appeal out of primary elections where voters matter. If the networks truly want to foster political debate and electoral turnout, why can't they stop their incessant crystal-ball chatter and let the game unfold a little more naturally?
In Iowa in 2004, the pre-caucus polls showed an extremely fluid and close four-way Democrat race -- which turned out to be wrong. But the Tim Russerts of the world announced with great fanfare that this was too close to call. The supposed fantasy of a four-way tie gave way to a very different reality: John Kerry took 38 percent, followed by John Edwards with 32, Screaming Howard Dean with 18, and Dick Gephardt with 11.