The D.C. Primary – An Ignored Piece of the Puzzle


Thanks to some very sharp and persuasive Crystal Ball readers – especially Chuck Thies, Sean Tenner, and John Capozzi – we have been encouraged to think through the implications of the D.C. primary, scheduled on Jan. 13, 2004, before Iowa (Jan. 19) and New Hampshire (Jan. 27). Of course, we all should remember why D.C. placed its primary first: to bring attention to the District’s lack of voting representation in the U.S. Congress. (Yes, the able, talented Eleanor Holmes Norton is an elected delegate to the U.S. House, but she can vote only in committee, not on the floor; and D.C. has no representation in the Senate.) But let’s leave that goal and argument aside for the moment, and look simply at the political implications.

Journalists and commentators have mainly ignored, or lightly reviewed, the possibilities created by D.C.’s leading the presidential nominating parade in 2004. (Your Crystal Ball has been just as guilty.) No anti-D.C. bias explains this, at least mainly; rather, the punditocracy is a creature of habit. Iowa and New Hampshire have cleverly duopolized the nomination lead-off since 1972, and they have beaten back all attempts to dethrone their extra-constitutional status. (After many trips to both states, the Crystal Ball is convinced that many voters in the Hawkeye and Granite kingdoms actually believe their “right” to go first is enshrined somewhere in the Bill of Rights!)

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to Boston and New York. District of Columbia leaders managed to get the Democratic National Committee to turn a blind eye to their “jumping line.” This is understandable, given the heavily Democratic nature of the District, plus its majority-black population in a party that depends on the support of about 90 percent of African-Americans. Amazingly, after some harrumphing, Iowa and New Hampshire let it happen, making the assumption that D.C. wouldn’t attract that much attention from the Iowa/New Hampshire-focused press and candidates.

But on July 14, a major event occurred which may have changed this calculus. The NAACP met in Miami, and several Democratic candidates (Dick Gephardt, Dennis Kucinich, and Joe Lieberman) failed to show up for the meeting. This venerable organization’s leadership erupted in anger at the perceived snubs, and the offending candidates offered apologies. More importantly, the entire candidate field was sensitized to the risks of ignoring and taking for granted the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency. The advocates of the D.C. primary just received a terrific new argument, and they are using it, with both the media and the campaigns.

Several additional facts lend weight to the “D.C.-will-matter” camp. The nominating process has never been so frontloaded, and so it’s easy to see how a victory in the D.C. contest will generate a good deal of favorable publicity for the winning candidate (and maybe close runners-up). We can be certain that those candidates will be trumpeting the results to all who’ll listen. Let’s also not forget that D.C. is the co-capital (along with New York City) of the national news media. It’s a convenient, cheap story to cover – and by then, every political journalist will have presidential fever, and be chomping at the bit to jump the gun. (The Crystal Ball loves mixed metaphors.)

Many of our readers have long complained about Iowa and New Hampshire’s hogging of the presidential process. It’s just possible that someone has shrewdly figured out a way to top them. All those who want to break up a certain un-democratic duopoly now have a horse to ride! Moreover, Chuck Thies (click here to email Mr. Thies), while giving odds of 9-to-1 against his own prediction, boldly asserts: “The winner of the District’s primary goes on to capture the nomination.” The Crystal Ball is unsure about that, but we’ll happily grant the possibility.

A Postscript: Sean Tenner, Executive Director of the D.C. Democracy Fund (www.DCDemocracyFund), points out that the D.C. primary is more than “non-binding” on at least some of the delegates. D.C. is allocated ten regular delegates, and twenty-eight super-delegates (38 in all). The ten regular delegates will be selected in a February caucus (when some participants may be influenced by the Jan. 13 outcome), while many of the super-delegates have already pledged to back the winner of the primary. So D.C.’s primary will come with some delegates attached. Plus, positive publicity is more important for a candidate early in the nomination game than the actual number of delegates won.