Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Michigan Senate Passes Bill Moving Presidential Primary to February

The Michigan State Senate on Tuesday passed SB 1207, a simple measure that would move the presidential primary in the state from the second Tuesday in March up to the second Tuesday in February.

While significant in the context of the pending changes the Democratic National Committee may make to the 2024 presidential primary calendar this week -- including a potential addition of Michigan to the early window -- this near-unanimous vote of the Republican-controlled Senate is likely symbolic.1 It was little more than a bipartisan show ahead of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting starting on December 1. 

That is not to say that Michigan legislators are not serious about helping to ease the state's presidential primary to a more prime position on the calendar, but there are a few moving parts here that should be accounted for. 

First, the Senate vote comes in the waning days of the 2021-22 legislative session. Now, strange things can happen as sessions come to a close -- including the expedited consideration of legislation -- but there are just a handful of days left in the state House session. One day this week and three more next week are it.

Second, Sen. Wayne Schmidt's (R-37th) legislation was discharged from the Elections Committee on the same day it passed with no committee hearing preceding it since it was introduced in October. And simple though this bill may be -- it is a one page bill -- it is one that could benefit from increased scrutiny. For starters, elections officials might like to chime in, as they always do, on how the new date would affect filing deadlines and their general timeline for elections. And it is also worth noting that Republicans supported this bill but stand to lose a lot if the Michigan presidential primary ends up on the second Tuesday in February. A Republican primary in that position would violate Republican National Committee rules and decrease the Michigan delegation to the 2024 convention by more than three-quarters

Michigan may get a go-ahead from the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee to hold an earlier primary in their meeting this week, but there will be some Michigan-specific factors that will have to be considered in scheduling an early window primary. One option is to mirror what South Carolina does and hold those primaries on separate days. That is one avenue, but it would be an expensive one, and one that is not common among states with government-run primaries. South Carolina is the exception rather than the rule. Michigan is also a much bigger and more expensive state. 

Alternatively, Michigan Republicans could simply opt out of the presidential primary and conduct a primary or caucus on their own. But that is expensive as well and party coffers are tougher to fill than those of the state governments. Plus, that money is often better used elsewhere. Of course, the new Democratic unified government in the Great Lakes state could also force the hands of state Republicans by going with the mid-February date in SB 1207 anyway. That would force Republicans to forge ahead with the new date on the hopes that a waiver might successfully be won, or push them to a later and compliant caucus. And a waiver could work, although that would have implications for the scheduling of other early contests that the Republicans set in stone before 2016 (and have carried over in subsequent cycles). 

Granted, there is a third route that would work for all parties concerned. A loophole in RNC rules would allow for the Michigan primary to be scheduled as early as March 1 without penalty from the RNC. A Saturday, March 2 primary would fall in the early window on the Democratic calendar right before Super Tuesday and also be compliant -- or unpenalized -- under Republican rules. 

But that is a great deal to hash out, and typically states -- either governments or parties -- tend to wait until after the two major parties have finalized the rules before making decisions on when to schedule their primary elections or caucuses. Yes, that has typically been done by now in the process. The DNC is a little late this cycle. 

With that step in place after the early December DNCRBC meeting, the new Michigan legislature -- one controlled by Democrats -- will likely look to put its own stamp on whatever the DNC hands down in terms of overarching guidelines. 

But for now, this vote on SB 1207 was a show vote to demonstrate to national players that Michigan is ready to be early. And if one has followed along with the various calendar machinations over time, Michigan is not an unfamiliar character. 

1 Assistant Majority Caucus Chair Jim Rundestad (R-15th) was the lone dissenting vote. Two Democrats and one other Republican were excused.


Katon Dawson, is that you? Iowa Republican Threatens Halloween 2023 Caucuses

Few likely will get the reference, but Jeff Kaufmann, the Republican Party of Iowa chair, inadvertently or not, stepped into a time machine when he recently suggested moving the party's 2024 caucuses to Halloween 2023.

The players in 2007 were different, but the intent, then as now, was largely similar: to protect a privileged position in the early window of the presidential primary calendar. Then, in the face of Florida shifting its primary for the 2008 cycle into January, South Carolina Republican Party chair, Katon Dawson, gave a similar warning in signaling his desire to keep the status of the Republican primary in the Palmetto state first-in-the-South.

But Dawson's threat was nearly as hyperbolic as Kaufmann's is now. In neither case was (or is) it necessary to push a nominating contest into the year before the presidential election -- much less as far into it as Halloween -- to protect the carve-out status afforded either state. Of course, Dawson was trying to maintain the first slot granted a southern state, not the top overall spot on the calendar. And Florida's striking move was, in the end, the only such push by a rival southern state to South Carolina's position. 

Outside of that, however, the conditions are similar in Iowa now. In both cases there are (and were) separate Democratic and Republican contests run by the state parties and not the state government.1 And that is no small thing. It provides decision makers in similar states the latitude to move when the calendar rules of both national parties are not aligned or when threats arise from other states. 

South Carolina Republicans -- and Democrats, for that matter -- did not have to move ahead of all rogue or potentially rogue states in 2007. They just had to move to a slot ahead of the next earliest, southern state. And Florida, because of its early state legislative session, had made its move for 2008 by May 2007. That gave Republicans in the Palmetto state time to react and move accordingly. Now, 2007 was a particularly chaotic cycle in terms of how the primary calendar evolved and ultimately shook out. It was not completely clear after May whether the Florida threat would sustain itself (depending on what the national parties did in response) or if other states would crash the party as well. 

There were a lot of moving parts in 2007 that are not necessarily present in 2022-23. Democrats ahead of the 2004 cycle attempted to quicken the pace of the nomination process by moving the beginning of their window -- the window in which non-exempt states could hold contests -- from March to February. That was enough to get some states to shift into February for 2004, but the full onslaught did not occur until the next cycle. And that rush was so pronounced with active nomination races in both parties that some states -- Florida among them -- considered pushing even further ahead, contra national party rules. There was an abundance of chaos, sure, but there was even more uncertainty

So, while Dawson's threat was hyperbolic at the time, it also had the effect of laying down a marker for how far South Carolina Republicans were willing to go to protect their first-in-the-South status amid that uncertainty. 

One already knows Iowa Republicans would mount some effort to protect their position. The Republican National Committee has already enshrined Iowa as the first state in its rules for 2024. Kaufmann faces no such uncertainty in 2022-23. That is not to suggest that everything is crystal clear. It is not. However, there is no expected rush to the front of the 2024 queue (at this time). Look, the national parties have been here before. They sat through calendar chaos in 2007, and tweaked their rules (mostly on the Republican side) for 2012 only to see it happen again. Republicans upped their penalties for 2016. And Democrats strengthened their rules for 2024. Those wagons have been circled.

Yes, national Democrats are on the cusp of perhaps shuffling the early window on their primary calendar. That may affect Iowa Democrats, but that has no bearing on Iowa Republican's ability to stay first on the Republican presidential primary calendar (see above on separate scheduling). And Iowa Republicans will not have to push all the way to Halloween 2023 to do that. January maybe, but not 2023.

Even if the DNC gives the green light to Nevada to go first, the collateral damage will be pretty limited. The newly established presidential primary in the Silver state is currently slated for February 6. And if one assumes that the Republican secretary of state in New Hampshire shifts the Granite state primary to a week before that, in accordance with state law, then Iowa Republicans would only have to shift to the Monday eight days before that. 

That looks something like this (from the 2024 primary calendar as it exists at the time of this writing):

I get it. Kaufmann is trying to grab attention, lay down his marker and tweak state Democrats for not better protecting their status in the Democratic process. And he knows this. National Democrats are not playing a game of chicken with him and Iowa Republicans. The fact remains that Iowa Republicans just aren't that likely -- barring a massive unforeseen movement among state actors to go rogue -- to have to hold Halloween caucuses in order to protect their first position on the 2024 Republican presidential primary calendar. 

1 That has subsequently changed in South Carolina. The separate Democratic and Republican primaries are both funded and run by the state government. 


Friday, November 4, 2022

Democrats' 2024 Calendar Shake Up Hinges on Midterms

Of all of the things that are top of mind for those following the 2022 midterm elections set to conclude on Tuesday, November 8 -- much less those who have and will vote -- the 2024 presidential primary calendar is likely not one of them. Sure, the 2024 invisible primary has been going on since at least November 2020, but that does not mean that anyone earnestly wants to dig into the next election before the current one is even over. 

However, like a great many things, the 2024 presidential primary calendar will be affected by the outcomes of the midterm elections taking place across the United States. In a typical cycle, that would mean that gubernatorial and state legislative elections may impact where any given state may end up on subsequent presidential primary calendars. But this is not a typical cycle. In a typical cycle, FHQ would wait for the dust to settle on those state legislative elections, see where the out-party gained control and begin assessing where primary date changes are more likely. 

But again, unlike, say, the 2010 or 2014 or 2018 midterms, 2022 is not typical with respect to the formation and completion of the next presidential primary calendar. Yes, this midterm will impact state legislative control, and in turn, affect which states may or may not move as new sessions begin in 2023. But there is an added wrinkle in 2022 that has not been there in past cycles during the post-reform era. Unlike the half century of presidential nomination cycles before it, the 2024 cycle will push through the midterms without both major parties having completed their guidance for states to finalize their delegate selection processes. 

And the place where that guidance is lacking at the moment is on the Democratic side. The Republican National Committee long ago signaled that it would make no significant changes to its rules for 2024 and subsequently carried the bulk of their rules over to the current cycle when the September 30 (2022) deadline for making changes to the national rules came and went with little fanfare. And likewise, the Democratic National Committee -- through its Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC -- completed the bulk of its work on the party's 2024 nomination rules.

Yet, the DNCRBC punted on one facet of those rules, a part that has typically been in place before the midterms: the guidelines for which states are granted exemptions in order to go early on the presidential primary calendar.  Now, in typical cycles, the party would entertain discussions of changes to the early states, but would in the face of institutional challenges stick with Iowa and New Hampshire at the front of the queue. In some cycles those discussions are more rigorous than others, but the Iowa/New Hampshire question always comes up. 

The cycles that stand in contrast to that pattern are 2008 and 2024. During the aftermath of the 2004 election, the Price Commission took up the question of Iowa's and New Hampshire's positioning in the Democratic process, ultimately opting to recommend keeping the traditionally early pair among the early states but adding to the early window line up. The DNCRBC acting on those recommendations, then, heard pitches from a handful of states to fill those additional slots alongside Iowa and New Hampshire. Nevada and South Carolina emerged as those two states. 

And there was wisdom to the selection of those two. South Carolina was already positioned as an early state in the Republican process, the first-in-the-South contest that occurred third in the order on the heels of Iowa and New Hampshire. Nevada, on the other hand, was not a fixture in the early Republican calendar, but was a caucus state where the scheduling of the caucuses was not determined by state law. In other words, the two state parties did not have to conduct their caucuses on the same date. Even though Nevada Republicans ultimately forced the issue and joined the early calendar Republican states for 2008 and became normalized thereafter, DNC rules changes did not directly impact that outcome (not in the way that it would if the caucus dates for both parties were set by state law and on the same date).

Now fast forward to the 2024 cycle. Again, the Iowa and New Hampshire question was raised on the Democratic side. The same undercurrent was there -- questioning the wisdom in the same two states leading off the process and what impact that would have on the identity of the eventual nominee. But those typical questions were raised in the context of an error-laden 2020 caucus process in the Hawkeye state, a shrinking of the number of and preference for caucuses in the Democratic process and in the wake of the national conversation stemming from the murder of George Floyd. Basically...
  1. Operational: If Iowa Democrats cannot even conduct seamless caucuses, then why should they continue to be first on the primary calendar? AND
  2. Representational: If the Democratic coalition is as diverse as it is, then why are two overwhelmingly white states kicking off the process to determine the party's presidential nominee?
In that context, the DNCRBC -- and not a separate commission as in 2005-06 -- began to tackle the Iowa/New Hampshire question for the 2024 cycle. That the DNCRNC and not a separate commission led that charge was not the only difference between the 2024 cycle and its forebear from 2008. Unlike during the 2008 cycle, the DNCRBC did not grant a pass to Iowa and New Hampshire and entertain pitches from other would-be early states. Instead, the committee invited Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and any other willing state party to make their case for an early window exemption. Those 20 states would vie for up to five exempt slots on the early calendar with no guarantees for any of the four traditional carve-out states. 

And the handicapping had gone on for months leading up to the August window in which Democrats tend to finalize their delegate selection rules for the upcoming cycle. Obituaries were written for the Iowa caucuses, and possible replacements and/or early state additions -- Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada -- emerged. But the same institutional questions that have dogged past efforts to rearrange the calendar came to the fore in the summer of 2022. That left the DNCRBC to finalize the 2024 rules the panel could finish and leave the calendar questions until after the midterms

But why? 

On the one hand, delaying the decision on which states receive early window exemptions cuts into planning time those states will need to prepare not only for 2024 primaries and caucuses but for submission of draft plans to the DNCRBC by next spring. Yes, it helps some that the DNC finalized all of its other rules, minimizing the uncertainty to the dates of contests and potentially moving them. 

But on the other hand, the DNCRBC also wants to finalize a set of rules that stand some chance to be fully implemented and implemented as seamlessly as possible while also reducing the potential for snags. And here, FHQ means institutional problems when it uses the word snags. 

Now, to this point I have vaguely used the term institutional roadblocks, but specifically, the DNCRBC wants to get through the midterms in order to have some certainty as to exactly who their state-level partners will be in bringing any idealized version of a new early calendar line up to fruition. 

The political climate in 2022 favors the Republican Party based on the typical fundamentals of presidential approval and various measures of the economy. And that, in turn, means that some of those partners may be Republicans who are unwilling or unable to aid Democrats in their pursuit of an altered early calendar. 

Take Michigan. Yes, newly commission-drawn state legislative lines may give Democrats a fighting chance to win one or both chambers in the legislature in the Great Lakes state. But the climate may completely or to some degree negate any gains state Democrats would have taken from redistricting. But even if Republicans retain control of the legislature, there may be some who are willing jump at the chance of holding an earlier primary. In theory, yes, but in practice, those Republican state legislators in control would run into RNC rules setting Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada first and a super penalty that would strip the Michigan delegation of more than three-quarters of its delegates. Perhaps those legislators gamble or perhaps they opt to exploit a loophole in RNC rules. It would not get Michigan to first, replacing Iowa, but it could get the state into the early calendar mix. 

Or how about Minnesota? In the Land of 10,000 Lakes the bar is set a bit differently. The state parties can bypass the legislature under state law. That circumvents the Michigan problem in a way. The date of the Minnesota primary is set for the first Tuesday in March, but the date can be changed if the two state parties can agree on an alternative. That alternative could be first, replacing neighboring Iowa atop the calendar. But again, the same super penalty that would stand in the way of a change in Michigan would also be a roadblock to Minnesota becoming an early state. And the Republican state party chair would have a slightly more difficult time in pleading ignorance of the RNC rules considering state party chairs are RNC members. 

Maybe Georgia could easily fit into one of those early slots? The process for setting the date of the presidential primary is different than the two states described immediately above. But again, the reliability of partners matters. The secretary of state and not the state legislature schedules the presidential primary in the Peach state. 

If Democrat, Bee Nguyen upends incumbent Brad Raffensperger in the Georgia secretary of state race, then national Democrats may have a path to adding the Peach state to the early calendar. Of course, adding a state neighboring another early state, South Carolina, would be unconventional. Georgia is a more competitive state in general elections than South Carolina, but the Palmetto state was instrumental to President Biden's road to the 2020 Democratic nomination and some of his South Carolina surrogates may take umbrage to the first-in-the-South state either sharing the spotlight in the early window or being outright replaced. 

And those are roadblocks with a Democrat as Georgia secretary of state. With Secretary Raffensperger back in Atlanta enforcing state election law, he and the Georgia Republican Party would run into the very same RNC rules that Republican actors in Michigan and Minnesota would face. In other words, there is not necessarily a reliable partner for national Democrats to lean on in Georgia either. 

How about Nevada? The Silver state is already an early state and switched from a caucus to a primary since 2020. Moving Nevada would not necessarily change the early states, but could shake up the order of those early states. It is possible. But again, even that hinges on the midterms. Nevada is currently a state where Democrats have unified control of state government. Should the party retain control of the governor's mansion and the state legislature, then the same Democrats that pushed for the switch to a primary after 2020 and scheduled it for the Tuesday in February immediately after where Iowa has ended up on the calendar in the last two cycles, may make changes to suit the DNCRBC directives (if necessary). 

But Nevada is competitive and while that is an attractive quality to the DNC in terms of the states to slot into the early window, it may also mean that Republicans sweeping to victory in the midterms could spoil any of those plans. Silver state Republicans were not exactly supportive of the switch to a primary and the early February date could run afoul of RNC rules by pushing Iowa and New Hampshire into January. Republicans in power in Nevada after 2022 may reschedule the newly established presidential primary or they could revert the state to a caucus system and leave Democrats there and nationally in the lurch. Regardless, Republicans winning control in Nevada in any way shape or form means that national Democrats will not have partners that could assist them arriving at a calendar that best or better meets the goals set out by the DNCRBC.

But that is how this process goes. If the calendar was so easy to change then it maybe would have been over the course of the last half century. It is not for lack of trying. It is a function of the multitude of roadblocks that stand in the way of change. Big changes to the nomination system come when 1) both parties can agree on them (to some extent) or 2) when one party controls the vast majority of state governments across the country. Look at the 2008 calendar changes as an example of the former and the McGovern-Fraser reforms that ushered in the current system at a time when Democrats lost the presidency but controlled vast swaths of the country on the state level as the major example of the latter.

Look, FHQ is not saying that the status quo will carry over to 2024. It will on the Republican side. But the Democrats' chances of altering the beginning of their calendar depend almost entirely on what happens in the midterm elections. If Republicans sweep the states above, then look for the front of the 2024 primary calendar to look a lot like 2020. Any deviation from that scenario may open the door to some type of change even if it is not the idealized one envisioned by the Democratic Party coalition. Otherwise, the party may get a change, but it may amount to a fifth state being added to the end of the early window in a creative way that state Republicans can stomach (ie: exploiting loopholes in Republican rules).