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A Florida-first primary is a fantastic idea

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Iowa and New Hampshire dominate presidential politics due to calendar
  • Frum says Florida's correct in seeking to be the first in the nation presidential primary
  • Frum says Iowa caucuses to blame for ethanol subsidies that drive up food prices
  • Florida is much more representative of U.S. than Iowa or New Hampshire, he says

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for CNN.com. A special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- At the end of World War II, a new secretary of state faced a tough management decision.

The State Department's old quarters had become desperately cramped and crowded. What should be done? An aide proposed moving the department to a new building. The secretary of state asked: "Arguments in favor?"

New quarters would be more spacious, better adapted to modern technology.

"Arguments against?"

Tradition.

The secretary snapped: "Move."

The secretary happened to be George C. Marshall, one of the greatest military men in U.S. history. Decisions came naturally to him.

The U.S. presidential election system could use a Marshall today.

Florida has proposed shifting its primary into January, making the state the first primary in the nation.

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Other early primary states have protested ferociously. South Carolina's Republican Party chairman has demanded that Florida abandon its plans -- or be punished by having the 2012 Republican National Convention move from its currently planned site, Tampa Bay.

Florida seems doomed to lose its bid. Too bad. A Florida-first primary is a fantastic idea.

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The current American primary schedule is not the work of the Founding Fathers. The schedule is the unintended consequence of a hodgepodge of habits and coincidences. But this unintended schedule has terrible real world consequences.

Consider this: If you were to ask a panel of Democratic and Republican economists and policy analysts to name the single most wasteful, foolish and destructive public policy of the United States, they would almost certainly identify the ethanol subsidy high on the list.

The U.S. pays a huge subsidy to transform corn into motor fuel. Not only does the subsidy waste money, but it artificially drives up the price of food all over the planet. Many economic studies have cited ethanol production as the single most important driver of recent world food price increases.

Why does this ridiculous program exist? The short answer is: the Iowa caucuses. You want to be a major party nominee for president? You'd better convince yourself that ethanol is indispensable.

Take Barack Obama for example: As a U.S. senator, he was one of ethanol's most reliable defenders. So much so, that the American Corn Growers Association endorsed him for president in 2008, only the second endorsement in the group's history.

It's possible to win a presidential nomination without winning the Iowa caucuses: Ronald Reagan did in 1980.

It's possible to win without coming first in New Hampshire: Obama did in 2008.

But it's near impossible to win without either. The Republicans and Democrats of these two states have been granted radically disproportionate sway over their parties' presidential selection process.

This sway biases the nation's politics in unhealthy ways:

This is an urbanized country; 80% of Americans live in metropolitan areas as defined by the census. Iowa contains two cities of more than 100,000 people (Des Moines and Cedar Rapids), New Hampshire only one, and that barely (Manchester).

The United States is a very unequal country. Iowa and New Hampshire look like an older and more egalitarian America. In the country as a whole, 13% are poor, the same percentage as in Florida -- only 11% in Iowa and 7% in New Hampshire. In the country as a whole, 17% lack health insurance. Again only 10% do in Iowa and New Hampshire. Only one of the Forbes 400 lives in New Hampshire (No. 130); none of the Forbes 400 lives in Iowa.

The non-Hispanic white population of the U.S. has dropped to about 65%. New Hampshire is 92% non-Hispanic white, Iowa 90%.

Americans are hard-pressed by home foreclosures. Yet the foreclosure crisis has by and large bypassed Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which have foreclosure rates substantially below the national average.

There are other reasons of course beyond Iowa and New Hampshire why U.S. policy seems to favor farmers over city dwellers and why it cares so little about extremes of wealth and poverty.

But surely Iowa and New Hampshire are a big part of the answer.

Florida looks a lot more like the America in which most Americans live.
--David Frum
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Florida looks a lot more like the America in which most Americans live.

Even the one metric by which Florida looks unusual -- the high number of elderly -- is shared with the two existing first-in-the-nation states: 17.2% of Floridians are older than 65, but so are 14.8% of Iowans and 13.5% of New Hampshirites. (The national average is 12.9%.)

A primary system that started in Florida would press presidential candidates to talk more about issues about which most Americans care.

In 2012, for example, it will matter that Iowa and New Hampshire have unemployment rates well below the national average, while Florida's is above.

Al Gore was ridiculed in 2000 for suggesting that the length of commute was becoming a major problem for Americans. Floridians would not find the issue laughable. Floridians on average face the ninth toughest commute in the nation, Iowans the sixth easiest.

Champions of the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire often celebrate these states' proud traditions of retail politics. But it's those states' retail politics that are precisely the problem. Cycle after cycle, presidential candidates spend two years in the living rooms of Iowa and New Hampshire answering the same questions (if Democrats) about ethanol, Medicare, the goodness of teachers' unions and the badness of wars. Or if Republicans, they spend those years in living rooms answering questions about ethanol, Medicare, the goodness of guns and the badness of abortion.

Nobody ever asks a question about coral reefs. Or the future of the tourism industry. Or the issues facing communities that host military bases.

By the time candidates have to engage the voters in the 90% of the country where hockey is not a major sport, they have ceased to spend their time in living rooms -- ceased to hear from anybody other than consultants and pollsters.

This system badly needs a shake-up. So count me as strongly in favor of Florida first in 2012. And then maybe -- Michigan first in 2016?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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