Saturday, December 24, 2022

New Hampshire Democrats' Lose-Lose Predicament

Look, FHQ does not want to double dip on the New Hampshire/DNC rift over the Granite state's position on the 2024 presidential primary calendar. I already weighed in at length in response to the Boston Globe op-ed the New Hampshire congressional delegation -- all Democrats -- ran last week in defense of the Granite state's first-in-the-nation status. 

Plus, there is ample time to discuss these things. There probably isn't infinite time to deal with the issues -- fixes take time -- but there is more than enough time to talk about them. 

As such and to reiterate, New Hampshire will have the first primary in 2024. There, I said it. It will be first primary at the very least in the Republican process. However, despite the rapid-fire defiance from Granite state Democrats there remain questions about the fate of their 2024 process. While several New Hampshire Democrats have suggested the DNC cannot effectively enforce the penalties on the Democratic delegation from New Hampshire, the simple truth of the matter is that that hypothesis has not been tested in the post-reform era under these exact conditions. New Hampshire does not have a (direct) guaranteed first primary position in the DNC's proposed process for the first time since 1984.1 And it has less latitude as a result.

By definition, then, this is a different game that the New Hampshire Democrats are playing during the 2024 cycle. And their options are more limited. 

That reality is true regardless of the arguments the state party and their surrogates are making. The letter that Chairman Raymond Buckley of the New Hampshire Democratic Party sent to DNC Chair Jaime Harrison as part of this blitz to defend the early presidential primary status makes the usual arguments.2 State law, fragile but consistent Democratic advantage in the Granite state, etc. 

But Chairman Buckley's notion of the "undue burden" the DNC is placing on the New Hampshire Democratic Party triggered a few thoughts I had upon first seeing the conditions of the state party's pre-window waiver. The chairman is not exactly wrong that the contingencies will force New Hampshire into noncompliance. That was clear early on. Yet, while Buckley's attention was on the early vote requirements and participatory comparisons to the other proposed early states, my thoughts were elsewhere. 

Why did the contingencies focus exclusively on routing change in New Hampshire through the Republican-controlled state government? Yes, that is an avenue for changing the state laws on primary scheduling and adding early voting. But that is just one path. Why was there no focus on the secretary of state in New Hampshire? After all, it is that office that holds the date-setting power for the presidential primary in the Granite state. 

For example, why not focus on the "similar election" language in New Hampshire state law. The secretary of state is charged with scheduling the presidential primary at least seven days before any other similar election. But what is a similar election? There is no definition of it in state law. The layman shorthand has always been that Iowa has a caucus and that is why the Hawkeye state has gone first without falling into any major tiff with New Hampshire over the years. 

However, former Secretary Bill Gardner always gave a more nuanced explanation than the simplistic primary/caucus binary. Iowans in both parties, after all, were voting ahead of New Hampshirites every cycle. Gardner looked at those acts differently. Republicans were voting, yes, but they were voting on delegates to the next step of the caucus/convention process and not national convention delegates. In other words, there was no direct connection between those precinct caucus votes and the ultimately delegate allocation. Republican caucus votes at snowy Des Moines precinct caucuses, for example, were not binding in the way they were and are in New Hampshire. Similarly, the votes of Iowa Democrats caucusing in school gyms and living rooms across the state traditionally translated into state delegate equivalents and were reported as such (and not as Candidate X won Y delegates from Iowa). 

In recent cycles, however, those lines have blurred some without any real (negative) response from Gardner. Iowa Republicans made those initial caucus votes binding in 2016 in response to a change in Republican National Committee rules that cycle. And while Democrats in Iowa retained the state delegate equivalent standard in 2020, that was not the only metric reported on caucus night and national convention delegate counts were locked based on precinct caucus results

The point here is that Gardner's rationale changed over time, or rather, implementation in Iowa changed without Gardner responding by jumping New Hampshire past the Hawkeye state caucuses. So, not only is there no definition of similar election in state law, but there is demonstrated discretion with how a New Hampshire secretary of state can approach the similar election conundrum. There is some wiggle room.

Sure, current New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan is a Republican, but this is his first go-round in the quadrennial calendar wars as secretary of state. Scanlan has already vowed to follow the primary law, but again, why did the DNC not focus on him in the contingencies for New Hampshire's pre-window waiver instead of the Republican-controlled legislature? 

Perhaps, for example, a primary in which an incumbent president is running unopposed or largely unopposed is not a similar election. Little is on the line. Perhaps another state's primary in which candidates are not on the ballot but are on it in New Hampshire, a state famous for its low bar for candidate entry, is not a similar contest. 2024 may be that cycle and South Carolina and Nevada may have those types of primaries. Maybe. But put a pin in that for a second. 

In addition, rather than aiming for the secretary of state, the DNC contingencies could have focused on a different, middle ground. Look at that New Hampshire presidential primary statute again. Ideally, under the law, the New Hampshire primary is supposed to occur on the second Tuesday in March concurrent with March town meetings across the state. It is only when that is not possible -- when that date is not seven days before any similar election -- that the presidential primary in the Granite state shifts to an earlier point on the calendar. 

Since town meetings still occur separate from the New Hampshire presidential primary in years when it is before the second Tuesday in March, perhaps the DNC could have built a contingency that honed in on that dual system -- the presence of a presidential primary and a separate set of town meetings. The Republican legislature may not want to change the date, but they could be more receptive to a later option tethered to town meeting day for either Democrats or parties without an active (competitive) nomination race. Again, the Republican legislature in New Hampshire could be more receptive to that sort of maneuver. 

Then again, an option that Chairman Buckley failed to note in his letter to DNC Chair Harrison was a party-run option. The New Hampshire Democratic Party could run its own contest -- and/or fight the state law if they have to in order to hold one -- that falls on a later date on the calendar, maybe even town meeting day. That option is out there. But Buckley did not mention that. And the DNC did not make an alternate party-run contest a condition for the state party to successfully win its pre-window waiver because the party prefers a state-run option where one is available (just not a noncompliant one). 

Of course, there is a reason Buckley did not mention that party-run option. It is the same reason that the secretary of state likely would not carve out a more exclusive definition of similar election and why the Republican legislature likely would not change state law to accommodate a later option (even one that preserved the first slot for itself). None of those actors would make any of those moves because any one of them would undermine the first-in-the-nation law and the unified front everyone in the state has attempted to maintain over the years. 

It is not that there are not options, it is that New Hampshire actors little incentive to utilize them. Not yet anyway. New Hampshire Democrats are banking on the DNC caving again and not enforcing its rules. However, the 2024 cycle is different. Again, New Hampshire Democrats do not have the same guarantees from the national party that they have had in the past. And that changes the calculus.

That is the problem. That is the lose-lose situation in which New Hampshire Democrats find themselves mired. If they remain defiant, they run the risk of running afoul of DNC rules and being assessed penalties that could set the party back both within the state and potentially nationally. If they bend or aid in bending to one of the options above, then they have undermined forever the state law that the party has used as a shield throughout the post-reform era. There are no wins there; only a hope from the New Hampshire Democratic Party that the DNC folds in all of this.

Maybe, but it will be a messy process in getting to that point.

1 Before 1984, both New Hampshire and Iowa were indirectly exempt in the DNC rules or unaffected. See more here.

2 Below is the letter Buckley sent to the DNC chair.


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