Wednesday, March 28, 2012

South Carolina House Moves to Safeguard Future Presidential Primary Calendar Position

Yesterday a bill was introduced in the South Carolina state House to protect the Palmetto state's "First in the South" status on future presidential primary calendars. Now, FHQ has seen H 5081 described as "modeled after the New Hampshire bill" and that is partially true.1 First, the bill defines "South" -- or in other words, the states South Carolina perceives as threats to its quadrennially preeminent status on the presidential primary calendar. And outside of attempting to legally codify the position of the South Carolina primary on the calendar, that is where the similarities end.

Mainly, that is due to a couple of related factors. First, there is one decision-maker in the New Hampshire presidential primary scheduling process: Secretary of State Bill Gardner. He -- or any other person elected to the position in the future -- is the only actor within the presidential primary positioning calculus for the concurrent presidential primaries in the Granite state. Typically, when FHQ discusses concurrent primaries it is in reference to a state that holds both its presidential primary and the primaries for state and local offices on the same date. In this instance, however, "concurrent" refers to both the Democratic and Republican Parties holding primaries on the same date. Neither New Hampshire political party has any latitude on this. If they opt into the primary as a means of allocating delegates -- as opposed to say a party-funded primary or caucus -- then they are stuck with the date Secretary Gardner selects.2

But this is different from the set up in South Carolina. There you have not one but two primary scheduling decision-makers: the two state party chairpersons. That is to say that the potential exists for there to be two different primary dates; something that is foreign to New Hampshirites. In fact, it is traditional for South Carolina to hold two separate presidential primaries: one for the Democrats and one for the Republicans. That is attributable to several factors. The state is largely in Republican control and as a result the Republican primary is the one most associated with the "First in the South" phenomenon. If we're being honest here, the first "First in the South" South Carolina primary was not until 2000. We hear so much about South Carolina being the barometer of who the ultimate Republican nominee will be, and while that may be true, South Carolina didn't stake its claim to "First in the South" to bolster the "barometer" credentials until 2000.3

South Carolina Democrats have had a different experience historically. The minority party in the state, South Carolina Democrats have had on-again-off-again presidential primaries. That they have held primaries instead of caucuses is a rather new development. And the party has not necessarily staked a claim to "First in the South"; not directly anyway. South Carolina Democrats have a privileged position within the context the Democratic National Committee's delegate selection rules not necessarily for regional reasons, but for reasons of racial diversity as well. South Carolina's addition to the list of "carve out" states in the 2008 cycle was a function of the party adding racial -- and secondarily, regional -- balance to the list of early primary and caucus states.

All this is to say that this bill affects the two South Carolina parties differently ( least potentially). That makes this legislation different than -- in both form and function -- the law in New Hampshire.  That there is the potential for and very great likelihood of there being two separate presidential primaries in South Carolina is a budget nightmare for South Carolina; a problem the law in New Hampshire does not yield.

One other notable provision in this legislation that is similar to the way in which the New Hampshire law has and will continue to implement its law is that both require a certain buffer between its presidential primary and another similar contest; seven days.  While the New Hampshire law uses the "similar contest" language, the South Carolina proposal pinpoints "similar presidential preference primar[ies]." This may provide the Nevada caucuses some leeway in the South Carolina decision-making calculus.

Presumably Florida would be the biggest threat to South Carolina's position -- and yes, Florida is on the list of southern states in the bill -- and because the Florida primary is typically on Tuesday and South Carolina's on Saturday, the potential window actually grows to ten days (as it has the both of the last two cycles). One additional complicating factor here is that the two political parties hold separate primaries more often than they do not; making the codification of such a buffer in South Carolina law potentially more difficult. The buffer would potentially be different for the two parties if there is a continued insistence in holding a separate Democratic primary and a separate Republican primary. To specify a buffer would mean that even more space would have to be created to fit all of the early states into a seemingly increasingly small window (...if the process continues to push up against the first of the calendar year). This would seemingly cause the two state parties to work together to come to a common date, but that is not required by the legislation. However, the legislation would give state parties chairs some wiggle room to break with the seven day buffer under "extraordinary circumstances".

Is this legislation attempting to legally carve out an early position for South Carolina as the law in New Hampshire has done for a generation? Yes. But is the implementation different?

You betcha.

NOTE: Please see that Rep. Joshua Putnam is a co-sponsor of this legislation. No, that isn't FHQ though we share the same name.

1 The text of H 5081: South Carolina House Bill 5081 (2011-12 session)

2 This is horrible, right? "Stuck with" is hardly the proper way of phrasing this as the New Hampshire parties give up very little -- half their delegates in the past two cycles on the Republican side -- in exchange for the first primary position on the calendar.

3 It should be noted that there have been very few competitive Republican nomination races since 1980 when the South Carolina primary came into existence. In that year, the South Carolina primary was preceded by the Republican caucuses in Arkansas. In 1988, the South Carolina primary was the weekend before the Southern Super Tuesday. Also, Louisiana actually held caucuses before South Carolina in 1996.

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1 comment:

Joshua said...

It looks to me as though the SC bill does in fact require a seven-day buffer before the next Southern primary, or at least it does mention "seven days" in that context.