Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Post-Arizona Lay of the 2012 Presidential Primary Land

FHQ is glad that the Missouris, Ohios and Wisconsins served as a distraction to the bevy of news items that emerged yesterday concerning the 2012 presidential primary calendar. As has become quite usual, there was an overreaction throughout the political press to the news that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer had solidified the Grand Canyon state presidential primary date on February 28. Calls of calendar mania and chaos were rampant, and FHQ might add, completely unwarranted.1 The simple truth of the matter is that Arizona has been set for -- at the latest -- February 28 since the state legislature there adjourned back in April. After that it was all up to Governor Brewer to decide if the primary would or should be moved to an earlier date. Brewer never had, without the state legislature's help, the ability to move the Arizona presidential primary back.

None of this stopped the anyone from trumpeting the arrival of calendar chaos after the press release announcing Brewer's decision on the primary, nor did the fact that the opposite was actually a more accurate indication of reality. In less than two weeks, we have gone from the possibility of Brewer scheduling the Arizona primary on January 31, creating a scramble to the front, to Brewer leaving the primary on February 28 with the same reaction. It isn't chaos now and it never was. Chaos requires some measure of uncertainty and Arizona on February 28 at the latest has not been uncertain for a while now. As FHQ mentioned in our back of the napkin reactions last night, if anything, this clears up the picture even further. One more piece of the puzzle is in place. Sure, Arizona is now officially non-compliant, will lose half its delegates and shift up by at least a week any and all states that will, want or have the ability to go ahead of it. A week, not a month.

In addition, there are now very few states that can actually still jump on the early and non-compliant bandwagon and have a willingness to do so.
  • Florida can. The Presidential Preference Primary Date Selection Committee can schedule the primary in the Sunshine state for any date between January 3 and March 6 and has to do so before October 1, 2011.
  • Georgia can. Depending on when the decision is made, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp can schedule the Peach state primary for as early as January 1. If Kemp waits until his December 1 deadline, he will still have the ability to schedule a Tuesday contest for as early as January 31, given the 60 days he is required to give elections officials between the time the decision is made and when the primary is. 
  • Michigan can. The year-round state legislative session allows Michigan the latitude to set a date that other states with early and already-adjourned state legislative sessions do not possess. 
  • Colorado can. The state Republican Party has the option of shifting its date up, based on state elections law, from the first Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in February. The party's willingness to carry through with such a move is predicated on a calculation of how competitive the GOP nomination race is at both of those points (February 7 vs. March 6).
  • The remaining Republican caucus states (Alaska, Maine, North Dakota and Washington) can. To this point, however, not much is known about what the intentions are in each of those states. 
  • Wisconsin, Missouri and New Jersey can. But it appears that legislation has very nearly cleared the legislative stage in each and the decision to move out of February is up to the executive branch at this point. That movement is backward, however. The threat from these states, to the extent any exists, is in the governors vetoing the bills and maintaining the status quo.
The reality, then is that while 11 states could break through the March 6 barrier, not all of them will. Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin are all pretty safe bets to move back at this point. We don't know enough about the situation in any of the four caucus states to say one way or the other what impact they will, collectively or individually, have on the shape of the final calendar. If Colorado Republicans are going to jump into February contingent upon whether the race has been decided by March, then they are a fairly safe bet to stay where they are. Unless one of the Republican candidates sweeps all of the early contests prior to March, the race for the nomination will still be going strong. Michigan will not hold a primary any earlier than the February 28 date currently called for by state law. If they move, it will be back. The Michigan Republican Party has provided the Republican-controlled legislature with guidelines for setting the date between February 28 and March 6. In other words, Michigan will go no earlier than where Arizona is already scheduled. That would not push the calendar any earlier.

All we are really talking about then is Florida and Georgia. Two states!?! That's your calendar chaos? FHQ would argue that that is not madness. Yes, it keeps the calendar uncertain up to and probably beyond October 1. Yes, it was just two states (Florida and Michigan) that most threatened the calendar in 2008. But what we are witnessing now is not chaos and here's why:
  • To the Florida and Michigan point: Part of the problem with the 2012 situation is that people have a tough time not equating what is happening this cycle with the historic nature and course of the previous cycle. There is a tendency to say, "Here we go again" when looking at the development of the 2012 calendar. That is true to a point. But to FHQ's way of thinking, chaos requires at least some element of the unexpected. And while the Republican National Committee did make some changes to their delegate selection rules, they did nothing to prevent what happened in 2008 from happening again. This was completely expected, or should have been. That is different from what happened in 2008. There was no prior precedent of a state or states jumping the window and directly threatening Iowa and New Hampshire in the way that Florida and Michigan did in 2008. That was chaos. What is happening now is not. We know that the four earliest states will simply wait until the others have decided on dates and go earlier than that. To paraphrase Iowa Republican Party Chair Matt Strawn, we may not know the dates yet, but we know the order. The same argument could be made for 2008, but we didn't know -- but probably had a pretty good idea of -- what the Iowa/New Hampshire reaction would be and we didn't know further how the national parties would react to that. Given the 2008 example, then, we have a better idea about what will happen in 2012.
  • To the point about calendar uncertainty: This builds on what I just described above. No, we don't know the exact dates, but we do have a pretty good idea of what the order will be. Cry all you would like about the uncertainty, but you know who isn't acting like it is all uncertain? The candidates and their campaigns. FHQ has talked to enough people to know that the campaigns are and have been operating under the assumption that this nomination process would officially kick off sometime in January; not February when the parties would like to see things start. The campaigns are doing what campaigns do: Taking the information they have and formulating a plan. They know the four states that are going first, have a pretty good idea of the next group of states and have an even better idea of when and what states are holding contests on and after March 6. If the campaigns aren't acting as if this is a madhouse process, then is it? FHQ says no.
This is not chaos. There is not, nor will there be increased, frontloading. As we pointed out in our primer at the end of July, there is a sequence to all of this and to this point, it has followed form. Arizona was the first piece of information we expected to get. Dependent upon the information, the next series of states would decide. And that is where we are now: waiting for this sequence to play out and it will for the most part over the next few weeks.

1 There was also a "Let the frontloading begin" headline out there. I cannot begin to tell you how misleading, not to mention wrong, that is. There are two elements to the frontloading phenomenon: the front and the load. One is the actual movement forward. We have seen some of this in 2012, but not very much compared to a cycle like 2008. That is the front -- states moving froward. For 2012, most states, as FHQ has mentioned, have complied with the new national party rules and moved back. The other element of frontloading is the compression. This is the loading part. We simply are not seeing the same level of clustering at the beginning of the calendar in 2012 that we have witnessed in past cycles. There is a reason Newsweek ran an article about the potential diminished significance of "Super Tuesday" 2012: there are fewer states scheduled for the earliest allowed date to hold contests, March 6.

What is really in question here is that there are a handful of states challenging the window rule, the rule that exempts Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, but forces all other states into a March-June window. The Floridas, Arizonas, Michigans and Georgias of the world are not forcing any frontloading. They are instead just keeping the final calendar in doubt; the beginning point of it in particular. That is not frontloading. That's something different because while it is pushing up the start of the calendar, it is not bringing along with it the compression of the early parts of calendars in the past. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina actually have a good amount of January and February real estate to work with to avoid that -- depending on other states' moves -- if they so choose. And they likely will.

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