Thursday, March 8, 2018

2020 Republican Rules Changes, Part Four: A Caucus-to-Primary Incentive?

Part One: Setting Expectations for the Next Round
Part Two: Early Proposals
Part Three: A Reflection on Delegate Incentives

What lessons do past encouragement structures hold for the potential Republican caucus-to-primary incentives?

There are a few main principles arising from the previous exploration of past national party experimentation in motivating state decisions on contest scheduling that may have implications for an incentive program to entice current caucus states, in whole or in part, to adopt primaries.

    1) Conditions matter
In sum, the deep dive on past incentives hammers home a point that is often echoed in the context of electoral politics: timing is everything. Republicans in 2000 and Democrats in 2008 had ineffective incentives programs to curb frontloading mainly because of poor timing. Those regimes were instituted ahead of cycles where the motivation for states/state parties to frontload primaries and caucuses was at its peak: when there were competitive nomination races in both parties.

But those were also cycles that saw the parties act alone on incentives, sending a mix of signals to the decision makers on the state level. That did not change for Democrats in either 2012 or 2016 -- they acted without Republicans on incentives -- but what did was the level of perceived competition for the nomination at the time primary and caucus scheduling decisions were being made. In both cases, the perception was that the level of competition was low and the need to be early was as well. There were no challengers to an internally popular incumbent Democrat (Obama) in 2011, and the most viable alternatives to Clinton sat on the sideline throughout 2015.

Couple that with the fact the DNC benefited from the united front both national parties offered on penalties for would-be violating states and there existed a perfect storm for some measure of success. The penalties forced would-be violators stuck in February after 2008 to move for 2012 when the window was contracted to prohibit February contests. Penalties laid the groundwork, then, and some combination of incentives, state-level partisan control, and nomination competition helped determine the stakes and where states ended up on the calendars of the two most recent cycles. And it is FHQ's hypothesis that it is more the partisan control and competition effects driving the movement than the incentives. 2020 may provide a real or at least better test of that hypothesis.

    2) Primary or caucus decisions are not necessarily the same as frontloading decisions
Importantly, the motivation that compels state actors to schedule primaries and caucuses earlier in the calendar is different than that which animates the decision on whether to conduct a primary or caucus.

Often those two decisions -- frontloading or primary/caucus -- hinge on willingness and ability. It is one thing to ask if a state is willing to, for example, move forward on the calendar, but quite another to ask if that state is able. Compared to ability, there is more often than not a wellspring of willingness. In other words, there is often in at least some quarters of a state some desire to move the state-funded primary to an earlier date on the calendar. Bills frequently get proposed in state legislatures in the year before a presidential election to shift a presidential primary around on the calendar. But not all of those bills ultimately lead to date changes.

And the variation across states stems from a number of factors that can be broadly filed under ability. There can be partisan complications should a state be dominated one party while the other has a competitive presidential nomination. There can be structural obstructions as well. The biggest of these obstacles -- the one that has most often separated states that moved to earlier dates and those that did not during the era of frontloading -- was whether presidential primaries were consolidated with those for nominations to other offices. States with separate presidential and other primaries have been much likely to move around the calendar than those with consolidated primaries.

Moreover, this points toward another difference between states that do frontload and those that do not: budgetary impact. The financial hit to state budgets can be quite large, preventative even. States, in other words, that have incurred the costs of separating those sets of primaries are willing and much more able to shift primary dates than those with consolidated primaries.

This same willingness/ability concept can be extended to the primary/caucus decision as well, but with some subtle and not so subtle differences. In some cases, the ability may be there, but not the willingness. A state-funded primary option may be in place, but a state party may opt for caucuses instead. After 2016, this has been a point of contention on the Democratic side in the national party considerations of 2020 rules. Idaho, Nebraska, and Washington all had primaries at their disposal, but the state Democratic parties in all three states stuck with the caucus/convention system.

That group of caucus states differs from the majority of caucus states where state parties may have the willingness to hold a primary, but lack the ability. In the latter group, there is no state-funded option and little to no state party funding exists for what is a less effective party-run primary. A national party stands a better chance of nudging the caucus states with a state-funded primary toward adopting the primary. That is, a stick and/or carrot to the state party may be effective at triggering such a transition. But with that other group of caucus states -- those where state funding is not forthcoming -- national parties often have their hands tied. While they may be able to compel a state party to make a change, forcing state legislatures to appropriate the resources necessary for a primary is a different matter.

And that appropriation serves as an important aspect to flag in all of this. That is what separates attempts to curb frontloading from similar efforts to scale back the reach of the caucus/convention system. The national parties face less resistance from state governments -- whether motivated by penalties or incentives (and/or directly or indirectly through state parties) -- on reversing frontloading than on compelling a caucus to primary transition.


Much of the answer lies in the financing. The ask is not costless in the case of states with contests too early in the calendar from the perspective of the national parties, but it costs considerably less in terms of the budget hit to those state governments. Those states have already incurred the opportunity costs of creating separate presidential primaries or moving a consolidated primary up in the calendar. Instead, the price to be paid is one measured in influence over the presidential nomination process. As  a primary or caucus slips further into the calendar, the less likely it will be to have a marked influence over the shape of the nomination race.

But for the majority of caucus states, the contours of the caucus/primary or caucus to primary decision remains different. In that case, the national party is attempting to motivate a change in mode of nomination from the state party, and the acceptance of a financial cost -- funding a primary -- by a state legislature. State governments that balk at that push shift the costs to the state parties, and state parties have tended to opt for cheaper caucuses over costly party-run primaries.

    3) A united front
The national party push to curb frontloading succeeded when both national parties informally agreed a uniform shift in the start of the calendar after the 2008 cycle. Penalties in place on both sides thereafter were sufficient enough to draw most states into compliance for 2012, and the increased severity of Republican penalties for 2016 completed the task. It is under those conditions -- a united front -- that a similar effort to move states from caucuses to primaries would be stand a better chance of success.

Republican incentives may work on some states, but would likely see more widespread effects if the DNC was pushing in a similar direction. And that does not have to be in the same way. Again, Republicans have fought back frontloading with a series of penalties while the Democrats have used a combination of penalties and incentives over the last two cycles. In other words, Republicans could utilize an incentives system to draw caucus states toward primaries while the Democrats rely on some other method. There have been discussions on the periphery of the 2020 Democratic rules-making process of penalties for states with caucuses where a state-funded  primary is available. But that process, at this point in time, looks to produce a more passive national party declaration of preference (for primaries over caucuses) than a more forceful penalties regime.

Still, across both parties those signals may be enough to affect some change at the state level. Even without that national party prompt, the number of caucus states has already waned since 2016. ColoradoMaine, and Minnesota will all have presidential primary options in 2020. And Nebraska, Washington, and Wyoming have all explored either establishing primaries or strengthening the ones they have. Much of the impetus for that change or that exploration emerged not from the national parties but organically based on the strain placed on state parties to effectively accommodate those who wanted to participate in 2016.

Given those lessons from other incentives programs, is this Republican proposal likely to work?
The answer to this question is not as clear because the actual parameters of the the proposed incentives remain unknown. It is, after all, still a proposal.

    Are the conditions right?
FHQ remains skeptical that they are. Parties in the White House tend to stick with the rules they have; the rules that helped get the president where he is. In looking at renomination, the Trump campaign and the RNC may be eyeing the curbing of a structure that did not benefit the president in the 2016 process. But if the president runs unopposed or faces only a token challenge, then the state response has often been to cancel primaries and select delegates through a caucus/convention process or even via state committee selection. Rather than reducing the number of caucuses, then, there tends to be an expansion of caucuses on the incumbent party side.

    Details, details, details
Obviously, the success of such an incentive regime would depend on the size of the carrot and to which states it applies. On some level, the bigger the incentive is, the more likely it is that states would be to opt for them. But that can open the door to a logistical problem for the national parties based on which states qualify. A broad application to current primary states and those caucus states that opt in could dramatically increase the total number of delegates to the convention. This does not come without a cost to the national party in planning the convention. However, a more narrow application, targeted at current caucus states, would allow a potentially larger incentive that would have a more minimal impact on the total number of convention delegates. This is an issue the DNC has had with its bonuses and other rules tweaks over the decades. Adding more delegates reduces the number of sites that can actually accommodate a national convention. Regardless, this is a consideration the RNC will have to wrestle with if it is serious about an incentive program like the bare bones of the one proposed.

FHQ remains skeptical of just how effective this potential caucus-to-primary incentive the RNC Temporary Committee on the Presidential Nominating Process (TCPNP) is discussing. As the above discussion should indicate, there are a number of moving parts. Ultimately, however, this is something that is most likely narrowly directed at those caucus states that opted out of preference votes in caucuses in 2016. Call that the unfinished business path. Those states -- mostly North Dakota, but in part Colorado and Wyoming -- had delegate selection plans that, while compliant, were not in keeping with the delegate binding changes made after 2012. An incentive may be just enough to get them to reconsider. Time, however, will tell that tale.

Part One: Setting Expectations for the Next Round
Part Two: Early Proposals
Part Three: A Reflection on Delegate Incentives

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