By MARSHA MERCER
Media General News Service
March 20, 2006
Many people dread the quadrennial presidential rite: all those nasty ads, trees sacrificed for campaign mailings, dinners interrupted by phone bank calls. Voters despair of choosing the lesser of two evils.
So I can't help feeling a twinge of envy about the way March Madness grabs ordinarily sane people by the back of the neck and shakes them like rag dolls.
No election, not even for president, drives people happily crazy. During March Madness, people argue about rankings, slip away to study statistics and pick their brackets, then duck work to spend hours watching the contests.
When was the last time thousands eagerly viewed the Iowa caucuses, cheering wildly when 10 guys gathered by a blackboard in Waterloo for John Edwards or John McCain?
The people who run elections could learn from the NCAA.
First, the tournament's 64 games are played in three weeks. No dragging them out endlessly until people are sick of the whole thing.
Second, there's suspense and unpredictability. You can count on upsets.
And third, you're bound to see some great, classy performances. Skill on the court means something. In basketball, nobody wins by badmouthing the other guy. Actions really do mean more than words.
Choosing a president could be more like that. Conceivably, all 50 states could help pick party nominees in regional primaries - rather than letting a precious few voters in a couple of states decide which candidates live and die.
We're facing a historic presidential election. In 2008, for the first time in 80 years, neither a president nor a vice president will be in the race. It's time to open the process.
The Democrats are rumbling about changing the calendar to add more early contests. Don't count on it.
In both parties, die-hards control the primary calendar. Their goal is not to enlarge the pool of primary voters but to attract hard-core loyalists - even though their choice tends to be a candidate who's more extreme than mainstream voters.
Plus, Iowa and New Hampshire jealously guard their status as first in the nation.
Among Republicans, presidential hopeful Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is urging his party not to change the primary calendar, even if Democrats do. That makes sense for Romney. New Hampshire sprinkled its magic on Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts last time.
As for the tone of the presidential race, candidates could play fair, run on their records, tout their skills and their plans. But that's unlikely. Negativity and fear motivate voters.
In the NCAA, all the games matter, because you never know when an upset will change everything. In basketball, a win is a win.
In presidential politics, a candidate can lose a primary and still be considered a winner. Bill Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary in 1992 but called himself the Comeback Kid - and was.
To be sure, a presidential race at its core is about the best person to lead the country. That's a weighty decision. Real issues are involved.
When all that's on the line are sentimental allegiances and five "units" in the office pool, you can cheer your head off - without having to worry whether the winner will choose the wrong Supreme Court justice.
So, enjoy the NCAA while it's the only game in town. All too soon, presidential politics will be with us.
Before too long, we won't be hearing about teams coming to the dance, the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four. We'll hear charges and countercharges, lies and threats.
Hotline, the online political newsletter, already has named its top tier of candidates likely to win their parties' presidential nomination. John McCain won top seed in the Republican conference, and the No. 1 pick for Democrats was Hillary Clinton.
Number 2 were Virginians, Republican George Allen and Democrat Mark Warner. In third place were Mitt Romney and John Edwards of North Carolina.
OK, presidential contenders, get with it. You need mascots. You need cheerleaders. You need tattoos. You need hot hands.
No, on second thought, not hot hands. That would be madness.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.