Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on Presidential Primaries

Posted on July 31, 2007

Mr. President, today I joined Senators Klobuchar and Lieberman in introducing the Regional Presidential Primary and Caucus Act. Our legislation would establish a rotating schedule of regional presidential primaries and caucuses. We introduced this legislation because we agree that the Presidential nomination system is broken. The American dream that ``any boy or girl can grow up to be President'' has become a nightmare. Crowded schedules and government restraints on contributions close primaries to worthy competitors. States racing to schedule early contests have made the nomination process too long and expensive. As a result, media and money make decisions voters should make. The National Football League schedules 16 contests over 5 months to determine its champions. The Presidential nominating process uses the equivalent of two preseason contests in Iowa and New Hampshire to narrow the field to two or three and sometimes pick the winner. If professional football were Presidential politics, SportsCenter would pick the Super Bowl teams after two preseason games. The problem is not Iowa and New Hampshire. The problem is what comes after Iowa and New Hampshire. At least 18 States will choose delegates in a 1-day traffic jam on February 5 next year. The legislation we introduced today requires States to spread out the primaries and caucuses into a series of regional contests over four months. Beginning in 2012, States could only schedule primaries and caucuses during the first weeks of March, April, May, and June of Presidential years. The traditional warm up contests in Iowa and New Hampshire would still come first, but they would return to their proper role as ``off-Broadway'' opportunities for lesser known candidates to become well-enough known to compete on the 4-month-long big stage. In addition, at the appropriate time I will offer an amendment to this legislation that would allow Presidential candidates to raise up to $20 million in individual contribution amounts of up to $10,000, indexed for inflation. The current limit of $2,300 makes it too hard for many worthy but unknown candidates to raise enough early money to be taken seriously--leaving the field to the rich--who constitutionally can spend their own funds--and famous. Together, these two reforms--spreading out the primaries and allowing a ``start-up'' fund for candidates--will increase the pool of good candidates willing to run for the White House and give more Americans the opportunity to hear their ideas and to cast a meaningful vote. The true insanity of the altered presidential primary schedule does not become apparent until you actually lay out the proposed dates on a 2008 calendar. The mad rush of states to advance their nominating contests in hopes of gaining more influence has produced something so contrary to the national interest that it cries out for action. The process is not over. Just last week, Florida jumped the line by moving its primary up to Jan. 29, a week ahead of the Feb. 5 date when--unbelievably--22 states may hold delegate selection contests, either primaries or caucuses. Florida's move crowds the traditional leadoff primary in New Hampshire, which had been set for Jan. 22. And New Hampshire is unhappy about the competition from two caucuses planned even earlier in January, in Iowa and Nevada. So its secretary of state, William M. Gardner, who has unilateral authority to set the New Hampshire voting date, is threatening to jump the rivals, even if it means voting before New Year's Day. This way lies madness. Instead of there being a steady progression of contests, challenging and whittling the field of contenders in the wide-open races to select a successor to George W. Bush, it is going to be a herky-jerky, feast-or-famine exercise that looks more like Russian roulette than anything that tests who can best fill the most powerful secular office on Earth. As things stand, the earliest contests in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida will be followed by that indigestible glut of races on Feb. 5. On that day, voters in the mega-states of California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas will all be called upon to judge the fields of contenders. And so will voters of 17 smaller states, ranging from Alabama to Oregon and from Delaware to Utah. Most of those voters will never have had an opportunity to get even a glance at the candidates. All they will know is what the ads tell them--and what the media can supply, when reporters are exhausting themselves dashing after the race from state to state. Assuming everyone is not burned out, the survivors of this ordeal will find things slowing to a crawl--and then screeching to a halt. Maryland and Virginia hold primaries on Feb. 12, and Wisconsin a week later. Then there's a two-week gap, with only the Hawaii and Idaho caucuses, until Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Vermont vote on March 4. At that point, presidential politics effectively stops for more than two months. Between March 4 and the May 6 contests in Indiana and North Carolina, the only scheduled events are a primary in Mississippi and the Maine Republican caucuses. This crazy calendar sets up one of two scenarios--both scary. If one candidate in each party wraps up the nomination by gaining momentum in the January contests and amassing delegates on Feb. 5, we will be looking at the longest, most-dragged-out general election ever. The conventions are late in 2008; the Democrats' the last week in August, the Republicans' the first week in September. The time from February to Labor Day will be boring beyond belief. But if nothing is decided by the night of Feb. 5, the chance of a quirky result from the oddity of the political geography of the remaining states will be greatly increased. Democrats will have to compete in Indiana and North Carolina, where they rarely win in November. Republicans will be judged in Massachusetts and Vermont, where their party membership is minuscule. None of this helps the country get the best-qualified candidates, and none of it helps either party put forward its best candidate. The situation screams for repair. In my view, the parties would be well advised to make the necessary fixes themselves, rather than wait for Congress to devise remedial legislation. The mandate for the next pair of national party chairmen should be to agree on a sensible national agenda for the primaries--either a rotating regional system that gives all states a turn at being early or a plan that allows a random mix of states to vote, but only on dates fixed in advance by the parties, and separated at intervals that allow voters to consider seriously their choices. It would be close to criminal to allow a repeat of this coming year's folly in 2012.