Thursday, December 22, 2022

South Carolina's Rise to the Pre-Window

If you have not already read it, then FHQ highly recommends the recent Washington Post opinion piece from College of Charleston political scientists Gibbs Knotts and Jordan Ragusa. How the South Carolina primary gained primacy -- From first in the South to first in the Nation is a really good accounting of how, over time, the presidential primary in the Palmetto state got to where it did in the calendar proposal adopted by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee earlier this month. 

There were a couple of passages in the piece that made me think of a pair of stories.

1. In the section about the efforts of South Carolina Democrats to move the party-run presidential primary up in the 1992 process, Knotts and Ragusa write:
"By the 1990s, however, the success of South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary was undeniable and, in 1992, the state’s Democrats attempted to position themselves alongside Republicans as the First in the South state. Despite support for the early primary, Georgia leaped past South Carolina to host the first primary in the South that year as its governor, Zell Miller, worked with Georgia’s state legislature to secure the coveted position."
The jockeying between South Carolina in Georgia during the 1992 cycle is partly a story of a change in Democratic rules for the cycle. Following 1988, the DNC made the decision to widen the so-called window -- the period that states can hold presidential primaries and caucuses without penalty or a waiver -- by a week. In previous cycles the earliest states could conduct the first stage of their delegate selection events was the second Tuesday in March. But for 1992, that earliest point got bumped up to the first Tuesday in March

Several states took advantage of the change and moved to the new earliest position for 1992 during 1991. But none of them were from the South other than South Carolina. And that left the South Carolina Democratic primary as the first primary in the South scheduled on the Saturday before the remnants of the 1988 Southern Super Tuesday (on the second Tuesday in March 1992).

But things changed.

In early October 1991, Governor Bill Clinton (D-AR) entered the Democratic nomination race. And the story goes that Clinton discussed with his fellow southern governor, Zell Miller (D-GA), the idea of moving the presidential primary in the Peach state up to that earliest point to potentially give Clinton a lifeline on the early part of the calendar. 

Miller came to Clinton's aid, but there are two things to note here. First, Bill Clinton entered the race in October 1991, barely five months before the Iowa caucuses kicked off the voting phase of the 1992 cycle. In current presidential nomination politics that is white knight time, not a juncture in the cycle when serious contenders, much less future nominees, decide to throw their hats in the ring. Times have changed. 

Second, at that point in time -- fall 1991 -- the Georgia General Assembly was already adjourned for the year. Miller eventually leaned on the legislature, but did so when the body reconvened for the second half of the 1991-92 legislative session. HB 196 -- changing the date of the primary -- did not clear the legislative hurdle to be signed into law until mid-January 1992. And that was less than two months before the primary election. But that was not the end of the story. Section V preclearance under the Voting Rights Act was still a thing at this time and Georgia was a covered jurisdiction. The presidential primary date change still had to win preclearance from the Justice Department (which it ultimately did). 

The Georgia move is unusual in a great many respects. Primary date changes do not usually happen in the year of a presidential election. And if they do, those changes are typically intended for the next cycle. Also, this change came together rather quickly. That was also unique. More often than not, coordination on this sort of move -- one that goes through the legislative process -- takes some time (and in the case of Georgia at the time, was an effort eased by a Democratic legislature).

But that is how Georgia came to jump South Carolina -- really late -- and claimed the first-in-the-South mantle during the 1992 cycle. 

2. Knotts and Ragusa also pinpoint the 2004 cycle as a turning point for the South Carolina Democratic primary rising to the early part of the Democratic calendar. They write:
"Later that decade, the DNC prevented South Carolina Democratic leaders from holding an early primary alongside the state’s GOP contest because of national rules prohibiting primaries from occurring before the first Tuesday in March. Only two states had waivers: Iowa and New Hampshire. 
"Eventually, the DNC conceded, and South Carolina Democrats held the inaugural First in the South primary in 2004. Since then, the state has played a critical role in the race for the White House, often serving as a decisive vote after mixed, and often controversial, results in Iowa and New Hampshire."
Here, FHQ would gently push back to add some context. The 2004 cycle was important, but it did not represent a cycle in which the DNC relented and let South Carolina go early. Well, the DNC did not let South Carolina alone go earlier. As in the 1992 cycle, the DNC decided to widen the window for 2004. This time the party allowed states -- those with no waiver -- to hold contests as early as the first Tuesday in February, a month earlier than had been the case from 1992-2000. It was both a response to the Republican calendars that had come to include February contests over the previous few cycles, but also to compress the calendar and settle on a nominee as early as possible and better prepare for a run against an incumbent Republican president.

Again, South Carolina Democrats took advantage of the earlier window and moved their presidential primary to that first Tuesday in February position alongside six other states. Missouri and Oklahoma, two peripherally southern states, held primaries that same day, but, technically, South Carolina was the first-in-the-South.

It was not until after 2004 and the 2006 Price commission that the DNC moved on recommendations to expand the pre-window lineup for the 2008 cycle. Those changes brought geographic and racial diversity in to the early part of the calendar before the window opened that cycle (once again on the first Tuesday in February). They also ushered South Carolina not only into the pre-window period on the calendar, but as the lone southern representative there. 

That was what gave South Carolina Democrats the early (first-in-the-South) and a distinct (with a pre-window waiver) position that it still holds. Only, the proposed slot for the Democratic presidential primary in the Palmetto state is slightly earlier in 2024.


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