Monday, February 28, 2011

Is This Deadline in Minnesota a Big Deal for the 2012 Primary Calendar?

Politico's Ben Smith points out an interesting deadline nestled in Minnesota's election law that may serve to unravel the 2012 primary calendar quicker than Florida's inaction in terms of moving the primary in the Sunshine state. As he states:
Minnesota law establishes February 7, one day after Iowa, as the default date for that state's caucuses. The date can only be changed with the consent of both political parties. The parties must, according to the statute, agree to change the date "no later than March 1 of each odd-numbered year" -- that is, tomorrow.
That's interesting, but there are a few things that bear mentioning here. First of all, caucuses are different in terms of mechanics than primaries. No, that isn't a groundbreaking statement, but it is especially true in this instance. Primaries are state-funded affairs and that funding carries with it some state-mandated restrictions (eg: timing of contests). In caucus states, however, state parties foot the bill for those contests. As a result those parties have more freedom in terms of setting the date on which their delegate selection event is held. In the Minnesota case there is the added layer of a state with a statute regarding caucus timing.

But the law is only effective to an extent. The state parties provide the funding and ultimately have the final say in when the caucuses will be held.1 Let's take Minnesota in 2008 as an example. The law in 2007 as other states nationwide were repositioning their primaries and caucuses in anticipation of active nomination races in both parties called for the precinct caucuses in the Land of 10,000 Lakes to take place on the first Tuesday in March. In July, Minnesota Republicans moved from March to February and the Democratic Farm-Labor state central committee followed suit in late August.

It wasn't until 2008, during primary season, that the state legislature changed the law (202.A.14) shifting the date of the precinct caucuses from the first Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in February and added the March 1 deadline in the process. This seems like more of an effort to organize/coordinate the caucuses between the two parties than anything else.

There are a couple of take home points from all of this. One important point that this raises is that while Florida is tops on the list of states the national parties would like to shift to a later date, there are a whole host of other states with primaries (and caucuses) peppered throughout the month of February. Those states are just as much in violation of the national party rules as Florida. In Florida's absence, those states continue to disrupt the scheduling both the DNC and RNC prefer. Secondly, and more specific to Minnesota, it appears according to Smith that the state party has the leeway to change the date of the precinct caucuses if they want or need to:
Minnesota's Sutton said he was unfamiliar with other states' rules, but that he believed the state party didn't necessarily have to follow the timing set out in state law -- something that has soothed the nerves of some in the traditional early states. He also said he's not aiming to disrupt the process, and believes that despite the state law, he can move his party event's date at will if it becomes disruptive.
Attendant to that is the idea that the national parties can hypothetically lean on state parties to comply with their will more so than they can state governments. That may be less a function of the national parties' strength than it is one of state governments flexing their muscle against a penalty regime with little or no bite.

This case seems like less of an issue than, say, Utah where there is no legislation to move the Beehive state's February 7 primary and where the legislature adjourns next week. That is more problematic to the national parties.

1DFL Chairman Brian Melendez raises the point about the party funding the caucus on page 5.


astrojob said...

What exactly is the default date for the MN caucus as of now? The article you link to says it's Feb. 7th, but the calendar you have on the sidebar lists it as March 6th (one of the few caucus dates that you list).

Josh Putnam said...

A very good question; one that I am admittedly embarrassed to have to address. I'll have an answer to that and a broader reaction in a post later today after I've gotten the belated Week in Review post up.