A rational Democratic primary system would a/encourage choosing the candidate most likely to win the general election and b/encourage campaigning that would help the eventual nominee win the general election. The best general election candidate is the one that can attract independents while not alienating the Democratic base, and do this most of all in key swing states; the primary system should encourage candidates to begin doing exactly that.
The current system encourages candidates to focus almost all their energy on two small states (they are, at least, swing states) and the caucus system encourages a focus on committed, passionate Democratic voters to the exclusion of independents. The potentially crucial seven February 3 contests include four states - Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Dakota, Delaware - that will be irrelevant in the general election.
In a rational system, there should be no caucuses, only primaries, and all primaries should be open to registered Democrats and independents. The order of the primaries should be determined by the most recent presidential election results, with the closest states coming first and the uncompetitive races last. One rational alternative would be to have five primary dates - say, January 14, February 11, March 4, March 18, April 1 - with each date having one-fifth of the states (by electoral votes).
If we calculate 2000 margin of victory as (Gore + Nader) - (Bush + Buchanan), you'd get the following electoral schedule:
January 14 (Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Colorado) - 109 electoral votes.
February 11 (Arizona, Arkansas, Oregon, W. Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan, Louisiana, Washington) - 109 electoral votes.
March 4 (Maine, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Alabama, South Carolina, Delaware, Indiana, Vermont) - 107 electoral votes.
March 18 (California, Mississippi, Kansas, New Jersey, Texas) - 116 electoral votes.
April 1 (Montana, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Alaska, South Dakota, Hawaii, Nebraska, North Dakota, New York, Massachusetts, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, D.C.) - 97 electoral votes.
Each state should be assigned delegates by their electoral votes in the general election times eight for a total of 4304 (538 X 8) delegates. (There should be no superdelegates). The current system of distributing state delegates proportionately by the candidate's share of the popular vote is dangerous. It's hard to get over half the vote in a multi-candidate race, and if we ended up with a close primary race (not likely this year, but...), we could have a disastrous, divided convention. Instead, we should give half the state's delegates to the winner of the primary vote and then divide the other half proportionately to those who get over 20% of the vote (in the Jan. 14 round; 33% in the February 11 round; winner-take-all after that). So in an Iowa primary with 56 candidates at stake, a Dean 40%, Gephardt 30%, Kerry 20%, others 10% outcome would give Dean 41 delegates (28 for winning, 13 for 4/9 of the vote share of those getting 20% or better), Gephardt 9, Kerry 6, and the rest, zippo.
The field should be reduced to the three candidates with the most delegates after the January 14th round and then two candidates after the February 11th round. Those two can compete until one has more than half the delegates. In practice, this would almost certainly occur by March 4th. This system would mean that the Democrats would have a candidate with the proven ability to attract independent voters without alienating the Democratic base and to do it in the key swing states we need to win the general election.
Would Dean win under these rules? Probably, but a/instead of wasting his supporters' fantastic energy writing 100,000 hand-written letters to committed Iowa democrats, they could be investing that energy in winning over swing voters in Florida and Ohio; and b/if Dean won under these rules, it would put to rest the widespread and potentially quite harmful meme that he is unelectable.
Will we get a rational primary system in the future? Of course not.