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Even though we’re more than two years out from the next presidential election, it’s no secret that campaigning is already well under way, with, by my count, around a dozen or so Democrats (give or take a few) contemplating White House runs. Several PACs (the embryonic stage of a presidential campaign) have already started to set up shop in key primary states, establishing field offices, hiring staff, and wooing influential local Dems in these crucial states.

Despite all the water cooler speculations—Will Iowa Gov. Vilsack, polling at an anemic 4th place in his home state, decide not to run? Will Obama decide to throw his hat into the ring? Does anybody besides Chris Dodd actually believe that Chris Dodd is going to be the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee?—you may have missed an oft-overlooked, but no less important, aspect of the rapidly shaping 2008 race: the schedule of the primaries themselves.

Iowans and New Hampshirites (yes, that’s what they’re called—I looked it up) zealously guard their first-in-the-nation statuses with the paranoia of a Jewish grandmother on the streets of Harlem. And why wouldn’t they? Their outsize influence on the eventual nomination results cause otherwise-ordinary candidates to go crazy with Hawkeye/Granite state lovin’. Presidential hopefuls can’t seem to say enough good things about the discerning, informed, patriotic, dedicated (etc., etc… you get the gist) caucus- and primary- goers of IA and NH. They spend an disproportionate amount of time wooing “VIPs” the rest of us have never heard of, with their lips surgically attached the butts of precinct coordinators and county chairmen across the state. I kind of get the feeling that this every-four-years lovefest is the highlight of their otherwise boring lives.

This sense of entitlement that NH and IA primary voters have to being de facto kingmakers in picking the party’s nominee is totally uncalled for. The DNC is seriously considering moving the primary schedule around from ’04 (which produced a nominee in record time—barely three weeks—which isn’t even enough time for voters to get comfortable with the candidates, particularly in an uninterested media environment that reduces a substantive opportunity to debate the real issues in America to a mere horserace).

The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which has jurisdiction over such issues, is currently considering several proposals. One option the Committee is considering is a proposal to add a caucus after Iowa but before New Hampshire, a compromise proposal that would enable New Hampshire to keep their coveted “first primary” status while introducing a bit of geographic diversity into the primary process. Ten states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, West Virginia, Michigan) and the District have applied to be early-selection states. Rumor has it that the committee has all but decided on Nevada, but the committee won’t make an official recommendation until later this month, and the full DNC won’t vote on caucus/primary schedule until August.

New Hampshire Dems are throwing the political equivalent of a hissy fit at this prospect, with Gov. Lynch releasing a statement that said, in part, “Unfortunately, a small group of party insiders seems more intent on undermining a presidential nominating tradition that has worked well for 50 years - a tradition which ensures that the voices of ordinary citizens are heard. Even more unfortunate is that DNC Chairman Howard Dean - who never would have had the opportunity to be considered a serious presidential contender without the New Hampshire primary - is supporting their efforts.” Oh, snap!

He went on, declaring, “This fight isn't over. In the end, I am confident that New Hampshire and its first-in-the-nation tradition will prevail. The DNC did not give New Hampshire its primary, and it will not take it away.” Lynch and Dem legislators have threatened to move the primary even earlier if things don’t go their way.

This leaves ’08-wannabes in a bit of a bind—those early primaries and caucuses are crucial to a primary victory. Most candidates seem to be taking the traditional route—Evan Bayh, Mark Warner, and John Edwards will all be in Iowa this week—but some are hedging their bets. Tom Daschle, another presidential contender, is scheduling time to visit Michigan, another possible early caucus state, but if you think Daschle, a man who couldn’t even win reelection in his own state, is going to be the nominee in 2008, then I’ve got a bridge in California I’d like to sell you…

But I digress. What I really want to bring your attention to is NH’s supposed “right” to their first-in-the-nation primary, a claim I believe to be wholly without merit.

The Democratic Party is supposed to represent America. And a state with such a crucial role in determining who will be the party’s candidate for president should reflect the demographics of the country as a whole, right? Well, then why does our nation—12.3% black—hold its first presidential primary in a state where blacks make up only 0.8% of the state’s population? (Iowa’s not much better—it’s 92.6% white.) This is completely absurd, and DNC members are correct in their desire to add a Southern or Western state with larger black and Hispanic presences to the early caucus calendar.

New Hampshire voters argue that all of this is irrelevant; they say that they more than make up for their relative lack of diversity with a discerning sense of civic responsibility and political acumen that forces candidates to do “retail politics” and deal with voters one-on-one. While these are both true—rare is the New Hampshire voter who hasn’t met the man he’s voting for in person at least once—polling from 2004 shows that NH’s claims to “vetting” candidates are dubious, at best.

Kos did a story on this last week, and I’m borrowing his numbers here. Let’s take a look at polling from 2004:

Research 2000 for the Concord Monitor:
12/17-18, 2003
Dean 34
Clark 14
Kerry 13
Gephardt 7
Lieberman 7
Edwards 4

The Iowa caucuses were on January 19, 2004. The poll immediately following the caucuses, also by Research 2000, taken January 20-22, 2004:
Kerry 29 (up 16 points)
Dean 21 (down 13)
Clark 17 (+3)
Edwards 9 (+5)
Lieberman 5 (-2)

That’s some nice vetting there, New Hampshire. Kos writes, “In 2004, Iowa picked out nominee, and New Hampshire did nothing more than rubberstamp Iowa’s decision. No amount of “retail politics” on the ground in New Hampshire could overcome what Granite State voters saw in the Iowa results and Dean’s ‘scream’.”

I rarely agree with Markos Moulitsas on anything, but he’s nailed it on the head here. NH’s sense of entitlement is wholly without merit. While there are a lot of things about the primary schedule that I would like to see the DNC change—I think that the front-loaded primary schedule that generates a nominee in only a few weeks is a huge mistake, for instance—I think that NH’s status as first-in-the-nation, while a great tradition, is an idea that is past its prime. Unfortunately, nothing will change as long as candidates are too scared of alienating influential Granite State voters to stand up for what we already know—that New Hampshire’s primary is a privilege, not a right, and that it’s time to consider changing the primary schedule to reflect the reality of America.