Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Republican Rules for 2024 Present Some Calendar Opportunities

Understandably, there has been a lot of talk surrounding the changes to the Democratic Party presidential primary calendar for 2024. 

However, comparatively little attention has been paid to the calendar on the Republican side. That disconnect is, perhaps, even more unusual and interesting considering that the Republican presidential nomination process is the one where most of the action will be in 2023-24. Theirs is the more competitive of the ongoing nomination battles. But much of the relative quiet on the Republican calendar front is owed to the fact that the early calendar has been locked in since the Republican National Committee (RNC) adopted its rules for 2024 in April 2022. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will be the first states. One may not yet know where exactly on the calendar each will fall, but they can fall, by rule, "no earlier than one month before the next earliest state."

Yet, thus far in 2023, there is little evidence that primary and caucus placement for the remainder of the states is a top priority for Republicans in state legislatures across the country. There is no rush, for example, to schedule primaries for a spot that represents "the next earliest state." And there is room to maneuver for that title. 

Here is how:

Beginning in the 2016 cycle, the RNC made a small change to its rules that in subsequent cycles has created a divide between the Republican and Democratic parties' presidential primary calendars. In 2012, both parties allowed all contests that were not Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to conduct primaries and caucuses as early as the first Tuesday in March. The Democratic Party continues to use that language. That is the point at which "the window" opens for non-exempt states to conduct contests.

But on the Republican side, the language changed. Instead of the first Tuesday in March it became March 1 during the 2016 cycle and it has stayed March 1 in the rules ever since. That mattered little in 2016 because March 1 was the first Tuesday in March. However, while the Democrats' first Tuesday in March position has remained anchored in place, the March 1 of the Republican rules shifts around from cycle to cycle. That was less consequential in 2020 when there was no sustained challenge to President Trump's hold on the Republican nomination.

However, in 2024, March 1 falls on a Friday, the Friday before what at this point looks to be Super Tuesday on March 5, 2024. That is the point on the calendar where the most states' primaries and caucuses are congregated and the date that is the most delegate-rich date on the calendar (at this time). That divide between the two parties' calendars presents an opportunity for states to potentially shift into a more advantageous position without penalty

Yet, again, there has been no effort undertaken thus far by Republican state legislators in particular to exploit that calendar divide between the parties. FHQ has raised the possibility of Democrats in Georgia and nationally offering a Saturday, March 2 spot as a compromise position to a Republican secretary of state who has to this point resisted efforts to move the Peach state primary deeper into February because of the prospect of national party penalties. Nothing, however, prevents other states from shifting into that same position or up to a day earlier to Friday, March 1. 

Part of the issue here is that the RNC rules stray not just from those of national Democrats but from how primary date scheduling laws are crafted on the state level. In the vast majority of cases, presidential primaries are affixed to a day on the calendar and not a particular date. State laws call for an election to take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November or the first Tuesday in March and not March 1, for instance. The latter moves around from cycle to cycle and could potentially sow voter confusion when a March 1 primary would be on a Friday in 2024 and then a Wednesday in 2028. 

That, however, is a thinking that hews closely to tradition, but not one that cannot be overcome. A state law that gets changed in, say, Oklahoma from the first Tuesday in March to simply March 1 uproots the contest from a typical Tuesday, but aligns the primary with RNC rules (as they exist now). And that change offers the benefit of being ahead of the first Tuesday in March where other states' contests have clustered. A modest benefit in 2024 would be a bigger bonus four years later when a March 1 primary would be nearly a week before the usual Super Tuesday.

Of course, that may benefit Republicans in Oklahoma, but would put Democrats in the Sooner state in much the same situation in which Michigan Republicans currently find themselves. That is, stuck in a noncompliant primary they are powerless to change in a state legislature controlled by the opposing party. That would create some headaches, but not for the party in power. 

But this is the sort of instability that is manifest when the national parties are not on the same page. They do not have to formally broker any sort of agreed upon point on the calendar at which non-exempt states can start holding primaries and caucuses, but it is clearly in both national parties' interests to have a uniform start time to "the window." It would cut down on these sorts of cross-party scheduling snafus that present problems from time to time, an issue similar to the divide that now exists in the early calendar lineup. In the end, state actors will be attracted to opportunities that allow their state to be showcased away from the rest of the pack. And states can play that against national parties that do not present a united front in return.

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