Why is the Democratic presidential nominating contest heating up earlier than ever? There are plenty of explanations, including an impressive field and the sense that this could be an especially momentous election. But the overriding reason is simply that despite widely-held complaints about the "front-loading" of the selection process in 2004, it's going to be much, much more front-loaded in 2008.
Jerome Armstrong of MyDD has a good summary of what he calls "the biggest mess ever," and focuses on the maneuvering of some states to break into the DNC-dictated four-state (IA, NV, NH, SC) early calendar. And to be sure, all hell could break loose if NH and IA get into a crazy move-things-up-perpetually competition with other states to maintain their traditional first-caucus, first-primary status.
But the bigger problem is the number and size of states that have moved up to dates just after SC. As Armstrong points out:
In 2004, seven states held primaries within a couple of weeks of New Hampshire, and already for 2008, sixteen states are in that window. Unlike the 2004, in 2008 there are mega-states like California, New Jersey, Michigan and Florida in that mix.
Some Democrats rationalized front-loading in 2004 on grounds that taking on an incumbent Republican president required an early start for the challenger. That's obviously not a factor in 2008; yet the front-loading proceeds apace, basically because we don't really have a national presidential nominating system.
There are various theories about how front-loading will affect the 2008 contest. One is that it will actually magnify the importance of Iowa, where all indications are that there will be a close four-way race among Clinton, Edwards, Obama and Vilsack. Another is that the candidates with the most money and national support will "go long" and husband resources for delegate-rich post-SC states like CA and FL.
But one thing's for certain: when a grind-it-out attrition campaign means waiting to throw your real weight into states voting on February 5, roughly nine months before the General Election, it's a very different nominating process than we've ever seen. And that makes me nervous. --