Monday, November 19, 2018

Cross-Party Involvement in Presidential Nominations: 2020 Primary Calendar Scheduling

In the time since the midterms nearly two weeks ago, FHQ has been mulling over a morning after tweet from The National Journal's Hanna Trudo:
Yes, this is evidence of the Republican National Committee chipping away at a potential high-profile 2020 challenger to the sitting Republican president in a press release. That is not exactly uncommon. However, that email left me wondering about the extent to which either the RNC and/or the broader Republican Party would/will attempt to intervene in the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and how overt those efforts might be.

After all, we seemingly are a long way from back channel comments attributed former President Bush about some of the candidates involved in the 2008 cycle. But that was more commentary than outright attempt to intervene. And Republicans had their own active nomination race that cycle anyway.

Yet, typically, parties will keep the other party's process at arms length. Sure, press releases and mass emails are always going to be a part of this exchange in the open market of the battle between parties. But as is our wont here at FHQ, we tend to put these things in the context of the mechanics of presidential nominations. And that is what I turned to upon reading Trudo's tweet.

Often we think of partisan actors in elective office behaving in a manner to best advantage their party's interests (if not the party). Think in particular about the lengths to which actors on the state legislative level have sought to position their presidential primaries in calendar positions over the years to have some impact on the presidential nomination process in their own party.

Southern Democratic leaders, for example, famously pined for a process that would yield a southern moderate-to-conservative nominee throughout the two cycles in the 1970s and into the 1980s. The idea was that that type of nominee would stand a better chance at winning a general election. And the stars aligned in 1988, at least procedurally. Fourteen southern states -- headed by Democratic-controlled state governments -- shifted to and coalesced on the second Tuesday in March; just on the heels of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Sometimes, however, the best laid plans go awry. And that was the case for southern Democrats in the 1988 cycle. Try as they might, the plan did not work. Rather than speaking with one regional voice, the results across the South were split on the Democratic side. Dukakis won the big states (Florida and Texas), Jackson the Deep South, and Gore the peripheral South. The plan backfired.

But what can be gleaned from that is how state actors have typically approached the calendar scheduling part of this process: To the extent they sough to have influence, it was either to give voters a larger voice in the process (by moving earlier) or to influence who the nominee was in the party of legislators making the decisions.

In other words, the impact was to be an intra-party positive for some candidate (favorite son) or some faction within the broader party coalition.

Yet, this logic was turned on its head in the 2012 cycle. No longer was the motivation for states to move forward on the calendar to have some positive impact. Instead, the negative incentive in the form of (flawed) national party penalties was to push states back in the process in an effort to create a later start to primary season, one not bumping up against the New Year's festivities.

States retained the ability to cluster on the earliest -- although theoretically later compared to 2008 -- date, but all of those February 2008 states shifted in a seemingly partisan manner. Those with Republican-controlled state governments tended to move their presidential primaries back less than those in Democratic-controlled states. And there was at least some (anecdotal) evidence that the Democratic side of the equation was a concerted effort; to shift more liberal states later in the process to draw out and stir up a hypothetical race that foresaw a Mitt Romney nomination. Now, the logic underlying that effort can certainly be questioned -- liberal states in the aggregate do not necessarily have moderate-to-liberal Republican primary electorates -- but the intervention is there.

And that is where at least some of the focus should be heading into 2019: how will states shift around on the 2020 calendar? Much of the spotlight has been on the impact the re-positioning of the California presidential primary will have on the Democratic nomination process. That is not wrong. It is a noteworthy shift. But it leans on a logic rooted in the past: partisan actors (Democrats in California) making positive, partisan decisions (to move the primary in the Golden state up).

How much can we expect Republican actors to act? Will Republican-controlled states sit idly by and maintain early calendar positions? Or will Republican states, say those involved in the SEC primary from 2016, proactively move to another position so as to have some impact on the Democratic nomination process? Those southern states moving back would mean the shift of an important bloc in the Democratic primary electorate: African Americans.

There are no clear answers to these questions at this point, but 2019 will begin to offer them as state legislatures begin to convene for their 2019 sessions and begin to weigh primary calendar moves.

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