With the Iowa caucuses over and the New Hampshire contest shortly around the corner, there appears to be little concern to the process itself and what it has done to the political process of selecting the best candidate to represent the banners of each political party.
What it was over 150 years ago was a system of political control by party bosses at the local and / or regional level. The conventions held by the parties would actually determine who the candidate was at times, and at certain points in history would yield most excellent candidates (Abraham Lincoln) and not so excellent candidates (James Buchanan). The campaign was typically shorter, and depending on the most popular political names of the era, candidates themselves would rarely participate in open campaigning.
Today, quite the opposite case is apparent. John Edwards on the Democratic side had been planting campaign seeds and organizational roots across Iowa since his departure from the Senate in 2005. Governor Romney has been active since 2006 when Giuliani was still ahead in Iowa, and paid quite a sum to win a straw poll in August. What America has now is a campaign season that begins roughly two to three years in advance of the actual election.
Further, the campaign season of the primaries is becoming a contest amongst the states to be "more important" and nab the spotlight and monetary boon that is the early voting states. Iowa will not be denied going first, New Hampshire will not be denied being the first voting primary. Crowding into second are large states with huge delegations to send to the conventions, including states such as Florida and Michigan who jumped ahead against the behest of their own parties to vote at later dates. It is unlikely that those delegates will be seated come summer 2008 in the Democratic side, but it remains for a lawsuit to decide. Come 2011 or earlier, might it be possible that 10 or 12 states will vie for 3rd in the nation polling days?
In essence, the U.S. will have two candidates for the Presidency decided some time before March, with months and months to fight it out across a handful of closely contested battleground states. This observation comes before New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg decides if he will launch his own independent bid for the office.
What are the positives of an election campaign that lasts in excess of two years for an office with a term of only four? At what point is the system a detriment to the process of electing a president? Having a candidate lock up the nomination in two or three weeks time is almost akin to the old days of party bosses deigning one man over another to become the nominee in the proverbial smoke-filled back room. It is quick, and an extraordinary slice of the voting public has practically no say.
The one identifiable positive may well be that a relative unknown can work the ground campaign in a small region such as Iowa or New Hampshire and become a force in the election (President Carter had a similar run in 1976) and thwart the idea that only national figures or those with overly large war chests need apply. Even so, the individual that breaks through may still not be the most qualified candidate on the ballot among his or her party, let alone on the final national ticket.
I guess my proclivity runs towards the path of adding excitement back to the nominating convention. By not having a nominee, each party wrangles amongst themselves about who will be the best candidate, duke it out, have multiple votes, and charge out of the convention with a nominee and a campaign.
Of course this is more of a wish as the reality of a 24-hour news system means constant talk about who is ahead, behind, and in the middle of the race of races. With that as a backdrop, it is not a surprise that a campaign that lasts years is only there to feed the media beast so-to-speak.
Once the new President takes the oath of office, there will again be eyes back on who is visiting Iowa to stake out their very first campaign office in January 2009.