Friday, June 6, 2008

Now It Was the Calendar that Brought Clinton Down?

"If states had not moved up or “frontloaded” the date of their primaries and caucuses, under the misimpression that doing so would give them a greater voice in the 2008 nomination, Clinton might be the Democratic nominee."
--Michael P. McDonald, The Brookings Institution/Professor of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University
So now it was the calendar that knocked Clinton out in the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination race? State governments and state parties were deciding where to position their primaries and caucuses for 2008 during the time between March of 2005, when Arkansas became the first state to move and December of 2007, when Michigan's unsanctioned move was given the green light by the courts (over the access to voter information from the contests). Was it really a "misimpression" that 2008 would be like 2004 or 2000 or 1996 (etc.)? If 2008 had been like 2004, those states would have made "wise" decisions. They may have been lost in the shuffle among other, bigger states, but they at least would have held their contests on or before the time at which the nominee emerged. That had been the mark of most of the frontloaded system's races prior to 2008. Sure, in retrospect, those frontloading decisions may have been off the mark, but expecting states to have foreseen that is about as realistic as expecting pundits and experts to have predicted the race that just completed.

For the record, sequence did matter in 2008. But sequence has always played a role in these things. Florida's position in 1976 helped Jimmy Carter eliminate George Wallace. In 1988 the Souther Super Tuesday pushed George H.W. Bush out in front of the pack of Republicans. 1992 saw Georgia's position just after New Hampshire assist Bill Clinton in the comeback that began in the Granite state.

Sequence matters and it did in 2008 as well. That's just part of the nomination process, but it isn't the only factor. Obama's organizational prowess in the caucus states and micro-targeting of districts in state's where he did not win built the delegate advantages that he carried into the final weeks of primary season. The Clinton camp's inability to quickly devise a plan B after their Super Tuesday or bust strategy failed was the real cause of her downfall. The calendar was the same for everyone and was a known quantity (with the exception of Michigan) from early fall 2007 until Iowan kicked things off on January 3. Obama planned ahead; Clinton didn't. That is the story.

Look, I'm a staunch believer in the rules playing a decisive role in politics. Rules and rules changes form the basis of my academic pursuits and this particular set of rules (those applying to the scheduling and sequencing of presidential nominating contests) are the root of the dissertation I'm currently writing. I'm also something of a defender of/realist about the current system. Is it ideal? No. But it will be extremely difficult to get the national and state parties, Democrats and Republicans, and national and state governments on the same page to make a significant change. There are simply too many competing (not to mention, contradictory) interests involved. So now that primary season is over, it apparently is open season for frontloading bashing. The reexamination of the current system is a discussion that needs to be had, but a dose of reality is an important component of that discussion. Reform may be nice, but will be tough to come by. Rotating regional primaries may be nice, but a national primary, or something close to it, will be what we end up with.

Thanks to the good folks at Ballot Box (via The Election Law Blog) for the link.

Related: Michigan: What Would Have Happened? (from

Recent Posts:
Change is Gonna Come: How Did Obama's/Clinton's Fortunes Fare During Primary Season?

The Electoral College Maps (6/3/08)

The Big Montana


Robert said...

Great report at fivethirtyeight! As I have indicated before I am adamantly against a national primary. There was a letter in the Macon Telegraph this morning suggesting that Obama and McCain should pledge to support a constitutional amendment to have a national primary where the top two candidates would be the final candidates. There would not be separate Democrat or Republican primaries, and independents would also be allowed to run. Since it appears to be germane to your post, I am posting my proposed letter in response:

I certainly would agree with Roy Wetherington's desire for a modified primary process, but be careful what you ask for. I am against a national primary because that will force candidates to fight it out on television and not to interact with the people. This year Obama won because he related to people in Iowa and caucus states. McCain was able to win in New Hampshire and South Carolina where he could relate to real people. If we had national primaries, it would be just about money and name recognition. Hillary Clinton would most likely have won a Democratic National Primary, and John McCain would have lost to either Rudy Guiliani or Mitt Romney. If we would have had a nonpartisan primary as Wetherington suggests, it is entirely possible that Clinton and Obama would have come out as the top two vote-getters. The Democrats might enjoy a fall election featuring Obama and Clinton, but I suspect that Republicans would feel cheated. The likelihood of an independent becoming one of the two finalists is remote. Michael Bloomberg might be able to do it. Ross Perot was another. What they both have to bring to the table is lots of money. I understand that the Republicans are floating a regional primary system that has potential. I hope they are able to reform the process. It will require a constitutional amendment, as the early states are not going to be willing to give up the power that the current system affords them.

Anonymous said...

That sounds like an awesome idea! Louisiana politics gone national. It'll never happen in a million years, but I'd love to see it in action once, just to see how it would come out.

Now I'm off on a "what if" brainstorm.

Robert said...

Oh Oh! I'm afraid I have unleashed a monster!

Anonymous said...

Well, I think, like you said, it would be Clinton and Obama this year. The really interesting part would be to apply the system to past primary season campaigns. There are things you'd have to control for and to be fair, you'd have to project how withdrawn candidates had done in all or most of the primaries after they had dropped out. Otherwise, you end up with the same two people that emerged anyway. The top vote getters are the ones who survived the longest.

Robert said...

The other thing you need to consider is who has the name recognition and money up front. There would be no stepping stones like IA & NH or stalking horses like Eugene McCarthy. There would be incentive for the party operatives to anoint a candidate ahead of time -- a task not usually difficult for the Republicans but a real challenge for the Democrats.

A system like this one would have doomed the McGovern (can you say Muskie) and Carter (maybe Jerry Brown?) campaigns. One of the most interesting outcomes would be 1968. Bobby Kennedy might not have been assassinated and run in November against Nixon. Of course that would eliminate Muskie in 1972.

Anonymous said...

You'd definitely need to develop some sort of name recognition scale. Some combination of experience and media mentions would probably suffice, or at least be the best way to arrive at an operationalization of the concept.

The idea of late entrants, like Jerry Brown (in 1976 and 1992) or Al Gore (in 1988) is an interesting one. On the one hand, they'd have a lot of catching up to do. However, if there was any kind of backlash against the leading vote getter to that point, momentum could build behind a challenger. The downside would be that if the race was competitive on the other side, a successful late entrant would hurt the chances of that party getting anyone into the general election.

The other question concerns incumbents. Would they be included in the mix, or does this system apply only when both parties nominations are being contested? It would certainly increase turnout on the incumbent party's side if their partisans knew they had to turn out to get their candidate into the general election. That would probably be one of the positive side effects of this system. But you would have a scenario where an unpopular incumbent would potentially face a situation where he or she doesn't even make it into the general election. Perot edging out Bush I would have been an interesting possibility.

Alright, I probably need to shift this into its own post.

Robert said...

For the original source see

It is the second letter "Walk the talk"

I will be very interested in reading your post.

Anonymous said...

Here's the link from Rob to the Macon Telegraph letter.