Thursday, February 23, 2023

Rogue States Will Be the Norm as Long as the Parties Diverge on the Calendar

2024 is going to be different.

A look back to 2008
For the first time since the 2008 cycle, there will be a shake up to the beginning of the presidential primary calendar in 2024. And just as was the case fifteen years ago, it was the Democratic Party that instituted the changes

Then as now, the DNC sought to diversify the pre-window period on its calendar, augmenting the traditional Iowa/New Hampshire start with the addition of contests in two more states. Just as was the case during 2022, the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) invited state parties to pitch the panel in 2006 on why their state contest should be added to the early calendar in the upcoming primary season. Much of the focus centered on adding smaller states but also providing some balance in terms of region and demographics. And finally, part of the calculus also honed in on the idea of adding another caucus state in between Iowa and New Hampshire and another primary thereafter but before Super Tuesday. 

There are more than a few parallels between those criteria and the set used in 2022 by the current-day DNCRBC. But there are some differences as well. Democrats were the out-party in 2006, and parties in the White House tend to do less tinkering. Also, Democrats may have been a bit shrewder in their choices of additions for 2008. South Carolina was already a state that had carved out a spot in the early Republican calendar over the preceding quarter of a century. And Nevada was a caucus state at the time. Both featured state parties that made the primary/caucus scheduling decisions rather than state governments. Unlike in a situation where the state government sets a primary date, a move by national Democrats to add South Carolina and/or Nevada to their early calendar for 2008 did not necessarily drag Republicans in those states into the mix. 

Of course, Palmetto state Republicans already had a presidential primary that was an established part of the early Republican calendar. And Nevada Republicans joined the fun with January 2008 caucuses that skirted Republican National Committee (RNC) penalties. There was no RNC rule that required states in 2008 to bind national convention delegates based on a statewide presidential preference vote. Silver state Republicans and those in Iowa, for that matter, conducted a preference vote during precinct caucuses, but that had no direct bearing on the delegates chosen to attend the next stages of the caucus/convention process, nor ultimately those delegates who represented either state at the national convention. 

But it worked. Perhaps it was dumb luck, but it worked. Nevada and South Carolina, with minimal (although not nonexistent) implementation headaches, became not just established but institutionalized parts of the early calendar in both parties' processes. And that was despite the fact that both were flip-flopped in the other party's order; South Carolina third and Nevada fourth in the Republican process and the inverse on the Democratic side.

How 2024 is different and how that increases the odds of rogue states
That is a different story than the one that has played out in the lead up to when the latest primary calendar decisions were made in 2022-23. And it is different for a number of reasons. 

First, Democrats entered the review process for the 2024 rules and the primary calendar saying that no early calendar slots were guaranteed. All four (or five) were up for grabs. That meant that Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina had to make their cases before the DNCRBC just like every other interested state party. And for the first time since specific carve outs were added to the DNC rules for Iowa and New Hampshire for the 1984 cycle, Iowa, and likely New Hampshire, will have no waiver from the national party to be a part of the pre-window lineup. That necessarily creates two potential rogues states in one fell swoop.

Second, recall the background on the selection of South Carolina and Nevada in 2008. In both situations, it was state parties making the decisions on where primaries or caucuses in the Palmetto and Silver states ended up on the calendar. South Carolina obviously remains the same as it was in 2008 (with respect to the decision makers). That is part of the reason South Carolina Democrats got the nod to go first for 2024 in the Democratic process. Meanwhile, Nevada, under Democratic control in 2021, shifted from party-run caucuses to a state-run presidential primary. That move mirrors a push by the national party away from caucuses and toward state-run primaries. 

But while the national party has advocated for more state-run processes in order to maximize participation, that has limited the DNC's options in terms changing its calendar without potentially creating problems for Republicans in their process. Those problems are best highlighted by the Democrats' insertion of Michigan into the pre-window, an act that puts Michigan Republicans in the crosshairs of the RNC rules. Granted, this is a two-way street. The RNC decision to stick with the traditional Iowa-New Hampshire-South Carolina-Nevada lead off has impacted Democrats. It has created potential problems in Iowa and New Hampshire with both state parties, leaning on existing state, signaling they are likely to go rogue and hold contests concurrent with the Republican in their respective states. And unless the DNC tweaks its approach to Georgia, the Peach state primary will not be a part of the pre-window at all. Georgia definitely will not go on February 13 as planned.  

Another part of the 2024 picture that differs from 2008 comes from who is doing the rules tinkering. It is unusual for an in-party to so fundamentally reshape a seemingly ingrained part of the process. But what that points to is how much sway the incumbent president tends to hold over the system that will renominate him or her. Typically an incumbent is content to move forward with a nomination system that largely mimics the one that got him or her to the White House in the first place. That may produce changes from a nomination cycle to the renomination cycle, but they usually are not big changes. 

But what if they were? The 2024 cycle is testing that. It is the incumbent president who is testing that. Indeed, without the input of the president on the 2024 primary calendar, the DNCRBC seemed to be heading in the direction of something that would have knocked Iowa out altogether, bumped the other three early states up a notch (maybe with some additional shuffling) and added Michigan to the end of the pre-window as a midwestern replacement for the caucuses in the Hawkeye state. President Biden had something else in mind and the DNCRCB and ultimately the full DNC fell in line

And that has implications for both parties' calendars. More importantly, that has implications for how orderly those calendars are in coming together. Questions remain on both sides. 

Finally, while all of the above seemingly points the finger squarely at the Democrats as instigators in all of this, Republicans have played a role as well. Necessity is the mother of invention and, in fact, brought the national parties together in the time after the chaos of the 2008 calendar. Both saw value in not starting the process in January (or for not allowing states other than the first four to conduct contests in February). And they informally brokered a deal. FHQ often cites that and uses the "informally brokered" language, but here is what that meant in the rules. 

In the amended rules for the 2012 cycle, the RNC added language that created a specific carve out in Rule 15(b)(1) for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. In the previous cycle (2008), only New Hampshire and South Carolina had those exemptions. [Iowa and Nevada did not need them. Neither allocated any national convention delegates to the national convention in their precinct caucuses.] That aligned the Republicans with the Democratic pre-window calendar for the most part. Again, recall the South Carolina/Nevada flip-flop between the parties.

Moreover, the RNC added one other rule, Rule 15(b)(3):
If the Democratic National Committee fails to adhere to a presidential primary schedule with the dates set forth in Rule 15(b)(1) of these Rules (February 1 and first Tuesday in March), then Rule 15(b) shall revert to the Rules as adopted by the 2008 Republican National Convention.
It is not common for one party's nomination rules to cite the other party. But for 2012, the basic outline of the Republican calendar hinged on what national Democrats did. Basically, if the DNC did not adopt rules that called for a February 1 start to the calendar for the early states and a first Tuesday in March start for every other state, then the RNC would revert to the rules it used in 2008. That would have snapped back to the RNC using a calendar that allowed all but the exempt states to start in February pushing Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada into January. Yes, that happened anyway because Florida broke the rules again in 2012. But that was not a function of this brokered deal between the parties. It was because the RNC penalties were not severe enough.

However, once the RNC got their penalties right in 2016 with the addition of the super penalty, that was it. That was the high-water mark for cooperation between the parties. And the agreement held through the 2020 cycle or until the Democrats walked away for 2024. 

The break was about more than just the Democrats going their own way with a fundamentally different early calendar lineup for 2024. The truth is there was not much for them to walk away from. The dialog that had developed out of that deal brokered fifteen years ago gradually declined over time. It happens. And it happened because the players involved changed. Leadership on the RNC Rules Committee changed again in 2017 and interest on the Republican side mostly died with it. There was still Republican interest in the dialog but it was no longer coming from players who were directly involved on the RNC Rules Committee. 

And that lack of communication was something DNCRBC co-Chair Jim Roosevelt noted in the December meeting when the 2024 calendar plan was initially adopted by the panel. In responding to concerns from Scott Brennan, Iowa DNC and DNCRBC member, about the potential for a split between the two national parties on Iowa's calendar position leading to chaos, Roosevelt said that the Republicans were not open to coordinating this time. And that has been true for the last two cycles.

That matters. It is a part of the fuller picture. And as long as there is no (even informal) coordination on the matter between the two national parties, the more there are going to be rogue state situations like the ones that are likely to mark the 2024 cycle in Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire (if not Georgia).

But what even is a rogue state?
If Iowa or Michigan or New Hampshire are rogue in 2024 in one party's process or another, then that is different from the calendar rogues of the recent past. Those three states are unlike Florida and Michigan in 2008 and unlike Arizona, Florida and Michigan in 2012. State actors in Arizona, Florida and Michigan made decisions to break the rules. State laws were changed ahead of 2008 to push Florida and Michigan into noncompliance, and they were not changed before 2012 to comply with the new (and later) calendar start codified in both parties' rules for that cycle. 

Contrast that with the situations in Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire for 2024. Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire and Democrats in Michigan all have the blessings of their national parties to conduct early contests next year. Their counterparts across the aisle do not. And in the case of Michigan Republicans and New Hampshire Democrats, they have no real recourse if they want to use the state-run primary. If partisans on the other side move or keep the primaries where they are under state law, they are stuck to a large degree. 

That is a different kind of rogue. That is a rogue that is created by the discrepancy between the two national parties' presidential primary calendars. It forces the state parties in that situation to either take the penalties or to pay for their own party-run process (which is a penalty in its own right). But as long as the calendar divide exists -- and especially if Democrats continue to reexamine and reshuffle their early calendar lineup -- then this type of rogue state is likely to continue to cause problems on one side or the other. And that says nothing of the possibility of Republicans following suit and shuffling their early calendar in cycles to come. 

As of now, there is little evidence that there is any movement from other states to go rogue in the old fashion. In West Virginia, there are bills to create a separate presidential primary and schedule it for February, out of compliance with both parties' rules. But that is it. There is no concerted effort to rush the gates and go early against the rules. However, just because there is no conventional rogue activity now, or even in this cycle, it does not mean that states will not try to exploit the calendar differences between the two national parties in the futures should they persist. 

It is that sort of unraveling of the steady state informally coordinated between the national parties a decade and a half ago that should trouble decision makers on the national level.

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