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A new primary plan

One again we come to the end of the presidential primary season with the feeling that somehow the choices open to us were taken away without our ever choosing.

The process we have created is not the series of independent state primaries we claim it to be but a national primary serialized over a four-and-a-half-month period. As it is presently constructed, this "serial primary" does not address the traditional American urban-rural and small state-large state dichotomies. It exacerbates regional rivalries by allowing New England and the South to have the first major say.

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It also creates problems which appear to be indigenous to the random order we have allowed to develop. It places penalties on the front-runner because it allows other candidates to enter the race late but still before the nomination can be secured, and on the voters if they reside in a state with a late primary (but without a premium to those in earlier states).

A national poll published in mid-April found the choice of Reagan-Carter to be unsatisfactory to half the public. However, 55 percent of the party electorates had not yet voted. The present primary order causes this alienation to surface at this tiem in each campaign, encouraging late entries and the emergence of third-party bids. Nothing could be more dangerous to our republic than to repeatedly cause large, politically active segments of our population to abandon the democratic decisionmaking process in midstream.

Let me pose the following as a possible solution to some of these problems. In February, four states, each clearly typical of their regions and rural and small, should be the first to choose.

Iowa insists on being the first caucus (C) state and New Hampshire the first primary (P) state. There is no reason to disturb this arrangement. South Carolina (C) and Wyoming (C) could be placed between them. The emphasis would be on the organizational ability needed to win caucuses rather than the media manipulation and fund raising abilities necessary to win primaries.

In March, the focus should shift toward medium-size states with pluralistic urban centers, but where media markets are centralized to allow maximum impact per dollar spent. By keeping the same regional spread, these states would reaffirm the breadth of appeal of the candidates. (Or else they won't.)

First Colorado (C)/New Mexico (P), then Florida (P), next Missouri (C)/Kansas (P), and finally Massahussetts (P)/Rhode Island (P)/Vermont (C).

This round would begin a process whereby adjacent states which share a media market hold simultaneous primaries. The media hate to sell time at a discount, and there is no reason to return to any given market.

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Since less than one-fifth of the delegates would be selected in these first two rounds, it will prevent any candidate from breaking decisively away from the pack.However, the publicity the winners receive will help to swell their coffers without a concurrent diminishment. And the losers will not necessarily fall into excessive debt.

In April, the media markets should serve to group the primaries. First, New Orleans and Memphis which cover Louisiana (P), Mississippi (C), Tennessee (P) adn Arkansas (P). Then Portland which covers Oregon (P) and Washington (C). Next, Washington, D.C. which covers the District of Columbia (P), Virginia (C), and Maryland (P). And finally, the Twin Cities which cover Minnesota (C) and Wisconsin (P) -- both crossover states which provides a unique type of test.

The major crush of primaries should be in May and early June so the states can hold their own primaries simultaneously (and save money). The race could become fore-closed psychologically as it does now if the larger states are allowed to vote before May.

All the candidates should be in the field and tested prior to May. Otherwise the late primaries could fragment the decisionmaking process as they have in the past or undermine it with "weaknesses" (the newest buzz word) as they have done this year.

The length of the primary season has been one great negative -- the public becomes bored and restless.But its positives are the testing of the candidates' stamina and honesty. Particularly with unknown candidates, the willingness of the press to put any effort into investigating their background only begins when a candidate is considered to be a contender. An early beginning to the primary season is thus essential.

The parties can correct these deficiencies only by jointly agreeing not to recognize the result of any primary for which the closing filing date is later than March 15, and not to recognize the result of any primary which exceeds an allowable weekly percentage of delegates to be selected: 1.5 percent in each of the first five weeks and 5 percent in the next seven weeks.

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