News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

January 8, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Patiently waiting for Indiana's primary

While standing in a check-in line at Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome a few years ago, I watched an Italian woman walk past dozens of more patient travelers to grab a spot up front.

The grumbles of people left behind didn’t faze her. She smiled and moved ahead.

Minutes later, a cluster of other late arrivals strolled past the queue and cut in. A few irate, line-abiding folks admonished the encroachers, who pretended not to hear or understand. My wife and I looked at each other in amazement, wondering if this was simply the Roman way. With the motto “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” rolling through our minds, we joked about moving up, too. But we didn’t. We are Hoosiers, after all.

That’s pretty much where Indiana residents stand in the presidential primary process — politely waiting at the end of the line, watching other states cast votes that matter. Last Tuesday, the Iowa caucuses gave former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney an early lead in the race for the Republican nomination, and raised former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum out of national obscurity through his tight, runnerup finish to Romney. Iowans essentially forced Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann to drop out after her last-place performance, while ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry reassess their chances, too.

(Minimal-government, anti-war libertarian Ron Paul shows no signs of relenting.)

The field has been sifted this much, already.

This Tuesday, voters in New Hampshire will further winnow the GOP field with their primary election.

Meanwhile, Hoosiers go to the polls for the Indiana primary five months from now. Odds are, by May 8, one Republican will already have the nomination locked up. Only 11 states’ primaries remain after that date.

Yes, optimistic party insiders insist that Indiana could be a factor in the homestretch Republican competition, just as it was for Democrats four years ago when Hillary Clinton still had a shot at catching frontrunner Barack Obama. And, yes, the possibilities for two or more horses to survive into May improved after the Republican Party retooled its primary scheduling rules in the wake of the Democratic battle in 2008. The GOP spaced out its primary and caucus dates, hoping a similarly protracted nationwide duel gives its 2012 nominee the kind of exposure and preparation Obama gained in ’08 for a rugged general election in the fall.

(Imagine that, the Republicans drawing hope for change from the president.)

Maybe those stars will align, but such a scenario remains unlikely. The chances of Indiana’s primary being anything other than an afterthought in 2016, 2020, 2024, etc., are slim. The parties’ presidential nominating process needs to change broadly. If the Republicans and Democrats refuse to agree on a more fair system, our dysfunctional state Legislature should independently move the Hoosier primary to March. (Neighboring Illinois, for example, conducts its 2012 primary on March 20. Eleven states vote on March 6, Super Tuesday.)

March voting wouldn’t be unprecedented in Indiana. In fact, when the Indiana primary debuted in 1916, Hoosiers voted in March, one week before New Hampshire, according to the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader. By 1920, Indiana had shifted its primary to the first Tuesday in May, and New Hampshire has since maintained its status as the nation’s first primary. (Iowa uses caucuses, which amount to local meetings involving a limited number of voters with lots of time on their hands.)

There is value in beginning the presidential parties’ nominating process with sparsely populated states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. That tradition gives lesser-known, low-budget candidates a relatively equal opportunity to connect with the small numbers of voters. The politicians end up visiting diners, Legion halls, elementary schools and churches, instead of football stadiums and basketball arenas. Candidates have less room to dodge questions from the press and average citizens.

Iowa and New Hampshire don’t always have to be first, though. Several proposed reforms would give other low-population states a rotating crack at the leadoff positions, and open up early and mid-calendar slots to states now at the end of the primary-caucus line. The best proposal appears to be a blend of the “Delaware Plan” cited by FairVote.org and the regional rotation plan promoted by the National Association of Secretaries of State. The format would create small clusters of primaries at two-week intervals, beginning with low-population states and slowly graduating up to the largest, with some random selection mixed in. Indiana, with the 15th-largest population, could occasionally play an earlier, more substantial role.

To call Indiana a footnote in presidential nominating history is an understatement. Hoosiers have cast meaningful primary votes for Oval Office-seekers only a handful of times. And even in those rare, potentially decisive situations, Indiana didn’t favor the eventual party nominee. In 1984, Gary Hart narrowly outpolled Walter Mondale in the Indiana Democratic primary, but Mondale won the nomination. The same thing happened in 1976, when Ronald Reagan edged Gerald Ford in the Indiana Republican primary, and Ford got nominated. In 1968, Bobby Kennedy won this Democratic primary, but was assassinated a month later. In 1928, Herbert Hoover finished second in Indiana, but later topped the national GOP ticket. In ’20, Warren G. Harding placed fourth among Republicans in Indiana, yet won the presidency.

And, in 2008, Hillary Clinton received a slim Democratic victory over Obama in the most high-profile Indiana primary ever, but Obama became the historic nominee and presidential victor.

Iowans and New Hampshirites profoundly shape national government every four years. Hoosiers shouldn’t have to rely on happenstance to do the same. Until something changes, all we can do is hope.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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