Robert Gehrke: It’s hard to conceive of a worse presidential nominating process, but there is a better way

(Charlie Neibergall | The Associated Press) Supporters for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raise their hands to be counted during a Democratic caucus at Hoover High School, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Last week was a pretty good one for me. I found $20 in a coat I hadn’t worn in a long time, and I was able to declare victory in the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses.

All right, I’m exaggerating. It was only $10.

The fiasco in Iowa, where party officials blamed a faulty app for days of delays in tabulating results, was a massive embarrassment for Democrats and a frustration to the candidates.

It has also shined a bright spotlight on a presidential nominating process that, long before the Iowa debacle, has been just a really stupid way to narrow the field.

It’s nothing personal against Iowa — or New Hampshire, for that matter.

Robert Gehrke

Back when Jon Huntsman made his short-lived run for the Republican presidential nomination, I got to spend a couple of days following him through New Hampshire, and I was impressed with how seriously the voters there take their presidential politics.

I’m sure Iowa residents are much the same — notwithstanding the viral video from the Iowa caucuses where a woman voted for Pete Buttigieg and later wanted her ballot back after she found out he is gay. She had evidently overlooked that tidbit.

The problem is that candidates virtually have to win one of those first two contests. Indeed, the only candidate who earned their party’s nomination without winning Iowa or New Hampshire was Bill Clinton, who finished second in New Hampshire in 1992 and branded himself the “Comeback Kid.”

And these states are poor representations of the rest of America. Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the five whitest states in the country (86% and 90%, respectively). New Hampshire is among the oldest, with a median age of 42.7 years.

Candidates have to spend more time flipping pancakes at county fairs and memorizing all of Iowa’s 99 counties than they do talking about matters vital to other parts of the nation.

States at the end of the pecking order barely matter.

Remember four years ago, when Utah held its presidential primary in March? By the time the candidates focused on the Beehive State, the contest was pretty much over. Ted Cruz and John Kasich were making quixotic last stands to try to deny Donald Trump the nomination, but everyone knew it was futile.

Sure, Cruz won Utah, for whatever that was worth, and — spoiler alert — Trump won the GOP nomination and the White House.

It would be hard to come up with a worse nominating process if you tried (maybe a competition to see who could drink the most Jack Daniels, but even that might be preferable.)

There is, however, a better way.

Ever since he was lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert has been pushing for a system in which states would be divided into four regional groups and each would take a turn being the first to hold presidential primaries.

“I’ve been urging the [Republican and Democratic parties] to move to a rotating regional primary for the last 15 years,” Herbert tweeted last week, in the midst of the Iowa chaos. “Our current primary system is not working — and a rotating primary would correct the inequities that plague the current system.”

Herbert used a meeting with President Barack Obama to pitch the plan, and the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), which represents state elections officers, has promoted it for two decades.

The idea is not new. It was floated nearly 50 years ago and scores of bills have been introduced that would implement the system but, obviously, none has passed. When he was governor, Mike Leavitt and, subsequently, Huntsman tried to organize a Western primary, also without much success.

There are obvious advantages. Candidates would be forced to campaign in neglected parts of the nation, focusing on regional interests important to each section’s voters. Voters around the country would feel like their vote matters and get more engaged in the issues — like those in Iowa and New Hampshire are today.

Campaigning would be easier and less expensive, letting candidates move more systematically from area to area instead of crisscrossing back-and-forth across the country.

There are, of course, drawbacks. The states going last still might not matter, but at least they wouldn’t be irrelevant every election. And, at least as proposed by NASS, Iowa and New Hampshire still would go first — a concession to the stubborn unwillingness of those two states to give up their prime power position.

That stubbornness, however, along with the parties’ reluctance to make radical changes, means for now we’re stuck with a system that disadvantages most of the country and amplifies a few select states — at least one of which can barely manage to run an election at all.