Sunday, December 11, 2005

We've spent money on worse things

State House Majority Leader Ken Guin's legislation to move Alabama's presidential primary from June to the first Saturday after New Hampshire's vote died in the Senate last year, but that won't keep the Democrat from Carbon Hill from trying again. Guin will reintroduce the measure next year in an effort to attract more national media attention and to make Alabama a focal point in the presidential sweepstakes rather than an afterthought.

The move would come with its fair share of drawbacks. For example, the primary would cost about $3 million and would be held separately from later intraparty votes for congressional, state-level, and local-level candidates. That raises the questions of whether the expenditure is worth the extra attention the state would get and whether campaign fatigue would lead to depressed turnout in the subsequent primary.

On the plus side, the move would bring Alabama closer to major-player status in national politics. Right now, South Carolina, which votes in February, is the Southern primary, but Alabama's larger population would enable it to bypass that state on the influence list if their contests were held around the same time. The earlier primary also likely would pour millions of dollars in campaign-related spending into the state economy and would increase turnout among voters who feel they at last have a real say in who grabs their party's presidential nomination. (In addition, voting on Saturday would allow more people to cast a ballot without having to miss work.)

In the absence of any empirical data, the argument that an early presidential primary would do great harm to turnout in the June primary seems specious. Turnout in Alabama's primaries long has tended to be lower in non-gubernatorial years, and it's hard to believe that people's desire to select a presidential candidate is their main motivation to vote in the June primary under the current system, seeing as the Democratic and Republican contenders have sealed their nominations months before Alabamians make their voices heard. As is the case now, if the local and congressional races prove sufficiently intriguing, voters still would show up at the polls in June.

In a world where all other variables remained static, the pros would seem to outweigh the cons. But in this world, states across the country appear eager to join in the frontloading phenomenon, and if enough of the big states (especially Southern ones) move their primaries back to February and March, Alabama could lose much of its early-bird advantage.

So is it worth $3 million for Alabama to run an early-primary experiment? If ever we were going to try it, then 2008, a year in which the field of presidential contenders looks to be wide-open, would be the optimal time.

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