The Memphis Commercial Appeal - U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander
With the start of football season just weeks away, I propose that we turn the presidential nominating process over to the National Football League. Then, maybe we could have a second Super Bowl where anything is possible and everyone can participate.
The NFL schedules 20 weeks of contests over five months to determine its champion. The presidential nominating process uses the equivalent of two pre-season games in Iowa and New Hampshire to narrow the field to two or three - and sometimes pick the winner.
The NFL wasn't always so wise. In the 1930s, league owners rearranged schedules after the first few games so that teams that were doing well could play one another. This was good for the Chicago Bears, for example, but not for the league. Fans in other cities quit going to games - just as voters in most states have quit voting in presidential primaries.
Bears owner George Halas and others created today's competitive system in which almost any one of 32 teams can hope to make the playoffs. Green Bay can make it because the league makes sure even small-town teams have enough revenue. Prime-time television opportunities are rotated. Each Monday, senior officials in the league's New York office grade every call and no-call to second-guess even the instant replays.
Professional football has become America's Game because it symbolizes the most important aspect of the American character: If you work hard and play by the rules, anything is possible.
Every September the NFL fields 32 teams, almost all with a shot at the playoffs. Every four years the presidential nominating process does well to attract six credible candidates for the biggest job in the world - and all but half are effectively eliminated after two contests. If professional football were presidential politics, SportsCenter would pick the Super Bowl teams after three or four preseason games.
These two steps would fix the process:
1. Spread out the primaries. Twenty-eight primaries are crammed into five weeks after New Hampshire. Congress should assume the role of the NFL commissioner. Create a window between February and June during which primaries may be held once a month. Iowa and New Hampshire can still come first, but they would become off-Broadway warm-ups and not the whole show.
2. Allow more money. To raise their first $10 million, let candidates collect individual "start-up contributions" of up to $10,000. Today's $2,300 limit (indexed for inflation) makes it impossible for most potential candidates to imagine how to raise, say, $40 million. During 1995, when I was a candidate and the individual limit on contributions was $1,000, I attended 250 fund-raisers to collect $10 million. Since then, the combination of the higher $2,300 limit, the increased coverage on new cable channels and the growth of the Internet have made it easier to raise early money. Still, all of the 2004 presidential candidates but John Kerry were short on cash after New Hampshire. Put it this way: The Packers would never make it into the playoffs under the revenue rules of presidential primaries.
Before the August congressional recess, I introduced legislation that requires states to spread out the primaries and caucuses into a series of regional contests over four months. If this legislation passes, states could only schedule primaries and caucuses during the first weeks of March, April, May and June of presidential years starting in 2012.
More Americans attended last year's Super Bowl than voted in either Iowa or New Hampshire during the 2004 elections. Perhaps we should learn something from America's game about how to pick a president.