Getting Up to Speed
Candidates find the new pace of earlier primaries demands quicker promises.
If it seems to you that the 2008 presidential race has started far earlier than usual, you're right. Candidates have raised more money at a faster pace at an earlier time than in the past, and more states are holding early presidential primary contests than in prior years.
This accelerated and front-loaded campaign already has forced presidential candidates to rethink tactics and strategy. And, for better or for worse, it's likely to expand the field of issues on which candidates are forced to take a position.
In past presidential seasons, there was a certain formulaic quality to campaigning. Candidates would talk in generalities about national issues, of course, but they also would have to be conversant on the issues that were most important in the key early primary states. For the most part, that meant federal farm policy and ethanol use in agriculture-oriented Iowa and tax policy in tax-sensitive New Hampshire.
But now that as many as 34 states could hold primary contests by Feb. 5, the 2008 schedule will have the consequence of introducing a slew of narrow but thorny federal and national issues that candidates might not have encountered in the past and will have to address in order to remain competitive in certain states.
More than a few of these issues come compliments of California, the behemoth that recently skewed the election calendar by moving its primary to the first week in February.
The issues that matter most in California politics are not necessarily the same as elsewhere. Environmental protection ranks high on voters' minds, so candidates will need to offer detailed positions on global warming and offshore oil drilling. They'll also need to bone up on federal water policy, since the state is outgrowing its supply. Armenian-Americans are a sizable constituency; they'll expect candidates to take a position on the congressional resolution calling for recognition of the Armenian genocide-which could put candidates at odds with the State Department, which has resisted the effort, arguing that it jeopardizes U.S.-Turkey relations.
There is immigration, of course, and then another issue that state politicians will force presidential candidates to confront: California's return on its federal tax dollars. It ranks as the No. 2 donor state, receiving just 79 cents in federal spending for every dollar it sends to Washington.
Other early primary states present a different issue mix. Now that Nevada and South Carolina hold two of the four critical January contests, nuclear waste suddenly takes center stage. South Carolina has a handful of facilities that produce tons of high-level nuclear waste.
Eventually that waste was supposed to be transported to Nevada, where a national nuclear waste repository was slated to be built at a facility called Yucca Mountain-a facility that Nevada residents desperately want to stop from being built.
Naturally this puts presidential aspirants in a tough fix. In Democrat John Edwards' case, he decided to change his position. During his term in the Senate, he voted to move forward with building Yucca Mountain. Now that he is courting Nevada voters, he opposes the project, explaining that nuclear waste might have to be stored at the facilities where it is produced. Florida is considering moving its primary to January, and if it does, an even more diverse set of issues will surface. The politically active Cuban community in South Florida will demand a detailed discussion of U.S. policy toward Cuba. Hurricane-beleaguered voters and politicians also will insist on a conversation about windstorm insurance and the question of whether there should be a federal backstop for natural catastrophes, perhaps in the form of reinsurance, subsidies for the purchase of insurance in the private market or by providing insurance directly to homeowners.
After a good grilling on the windstorm insurance question, presidential candidates could find themselves yearning for the days when ethanol and income taxes were all they needed to get up to speed on.
Charles Mahtesian is editor of The Almanac of American Politics.