Friday, March 9, 2018

Skipping Early States, 2020 Edition

Edward-Isaac Dovere at Politico reports on the strategizing among the nascent campaign team in former Vice President Joe Biden's orbit:
"...a tight circle of aides has been brainstorming a range of tear-up-the-playbook ideas for a White House run, according to people who’ve been part of the discussions or told about them. 
On the list: announcing his candidacy either really early or really late in the primary process so that he’d define the field around him or let it define itself before scrambling the field; skipping Iowa and New Hampshire and going straight to South Carolina, where he has always had a strong base of support; announcing a running mate right out of the gate and possibly picking one from outside of politics; and making a pitch that he can be a bridge not just to disaffected Democrats, but to Republicans revolting against President Donald Trump."
It is kind of early in the cycle for the "skipping states" discussion, but with 2020 giving all indications (at this time) of being a wild nomination cycle on the Democratic side, perhaps it is an idea worth exploring anew.

The premise remains the same: pick a spot on the calendar/state contest where you are more likely to succeed, win then/there, and keep winning on the way to the nomination. Simple, right?

In reality, that has proven easier said, or maybe strategized, than done. It did not go as planned when Al Gore focused on the Southern Super Tuesday states in 1988, and it did not work for Rudy Giuliani twenty years later when he attempted to resurrect a similar strategic path by putting everything on the late January Florida primary. Both campaigns foresaw their respective foci as springboards. Gore from a delegate haul in his home region that would give him enough of a lead to make it difficult for others to catch up. And Giuliani from a winner-take-all Florida win into a series of contests a week later when half the country would be voting.

Both lost.

Gore split the South with Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson, leaving behind his natural base of support and with no delegate advantage to show for it. Giuliani lost Florida to John McCain and the Arizona senator -- winner in New Hampshire and South Carolina -- used that series of wins to effectively wrap up the nomination a week after Florida on Super Tuesday.

Now, FHQ does not want to make too much of just two cases, but they are instructive with respect to the prospective "Biden to skip Iowa and New Hampshire" strategy in 2020.1 Nominees -- or frontrunners in real time during the primaries -- do not skip states. Those campaigns do not cede wins, delegates, and attention to their opponents for a month.

But the allure of South Carolina to Biden is clear and under a rationale much like those above. A win in the Palmetto state with its heavily African American primary electorate would serve as an important hypothetical precursor to wins across the South. And many of the states of the region -- with similar primary electorates -- vote just a week later. That would be an extension of the Clinton success story from 2016. Wins fueled by African American support across the region built the delegate advantage by which the former secretary of state claimed the nomination. Actually, that is the surest path to the modern Democratic nomination.

But skipping Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada is no way to start any march to the nomination even with the "South Carolina gateway to the rest of the South" as the centerpiece. That lowers expectations in any of the first three states to zero and raises expectations on anyone camping out waiting in South Carolina. However, expectations can be lowered or rather tempered without ignoring the first three of the carve-outs.

Romney's "keep Iowa at arm's length" strategy in 2012 is a decent guide. There was a lot of talk of the former Massachusetts governor skipping Iowa in 2011 to focus on New Hampshire, but while he did not spend a ton of time and effort there, Romney was there. That is lower expectations, but not to zero, not ceding the state to the competition.

In a supposedly wide open race, candidates cannot give away anything. And on the Democratic side, get to 15 percent and qualify for and claim whatever delegates you can. Now, if Biden can do that without so much as looking Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada's way, then bully for him. But activists and volunteers, not to mention voters in those states will likely not be receptive to such a snub.

The skipping strategy throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Quickly, about that entering/announcing late strategy:
Biden may announce late, but if the campaign seeks to do this properly, then the announcement will not really come as a surprise.


Campaigns have to raise money and hire staff to run the operation. That is groundwork that has to be laid well in advance, and the public will see signs of progress (or lack thereof) during the invisible primary regardless of any announcement. To wait on building that campaign infrastructure is to, again, cede it to the competition. Biden stayed on the sidelines too long in 2015, and though the chatter of a possible run was there, donors and campaign operatives were not. They had signed on elsewhere and were not willing to switch.

Betting at home?
Biden announces early and plays in all of the carve-outs to some extent if he plays at all.

1 The Politico article is another cut in the death by one thousand cuts that the Nevada caucuses continue endure. Presumably, if a Biden campaign is skipping Iowa and New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina, then they are skipping third in the order Nevada as well.

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