Saturday, May 27, 2023

[From FHQ Plus] The Trump Trial and the Primary Calendar

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The former president's hush money payment trial in Manhattan is set to start in the sweet spot of the 2024 presidential primary calendar.

Former President Donald Trump beamed into a New York courtroom via video on Tuesday, May 23 for a hearing in which, among other things, the start date of the trial stemming from the 2016 hush money payments investigation was revealed. And the March 25, 2024 date falls right into the heart of the 2024 presidential primary calendar. It is not just that the trial will begin as March winds down following the opening of the (more) winner-take-all phase of the Republican presidential nomination process. 

Yes, the calendar of contests is still evolving, but the tentative start of the trial is a big deal for at least a couple of reasons based on where it looks as if the calendar will end up settling for 2024.

Sure, March 25 will be well after Iowa and New Hampshire have officially kicked off the voting phase of the Republican presidential nomination race. It will follow Super Tuesday. And it will hit right after the time on the calendar — March 15 — when states are allowed to allocate delegates to candidates in a winner-take-all fashion. But more importantly, March 25 falls in what is likely to be the decisive zone on the presidential primary calendar next year. 

In the last three competitive Republican presidential nomination cycles, the candidate who has held the delegate lead when 50 percent of the total number of delegates have been allocated has gone on to clinch the nomination around the point on the calendar when 75 percent of the delegates have been allocated. And in 2024, the 50 percent mark will likely fall somewhere between Super Tuesday on March 5 and the first round of winner-take-all-eligible primaries on March 19. Just two weeks later, on April 2, the 75 percent mark will likely be crossed with an anticipated subregional primary in the northeast and mid-Atlantic (with Wisconsin along for the ride).

March 25 is right in that window. 

But look at the 50-75 rule in the context of the last few competitive Republican cycles. 

  • In 2008, John McCain came out of Super Tuesday on February 5 with a sizable delegate lead that he did not relinquish down the stretch. Super Tuesday was the point on the calendar when the 50 percent mark was passed and McCain had wrapped up the nomination by early March when the 75 percent point came and went. 

  • Four years later, the calendar was different. Yes, Florida again pushed the earliest contests into January, but California was no longer in early February. The primary in Texas was no longer in early March. Instead, both delegate-rich states were toward the end of the calendar and that influenced where the 50-75 rule was activated in 2012. 50 percent of the Republican delegates had not been allocated that cycle until after 75 percent of them had been allocated in 2008. The 75 percent mark did not come in 2012 until the Texas primary at the end of May. That is a significant difference, but Mitt Romney was the delegate leader in late March and secured the requisite number of delegates to clinch the nomination in the Lone Star state in late May. 

  • In 2016, the calendar changed again, but the 50-75 rule remained fairly predictive. Donald Trump was the delegate leader when the 50 percent mark was crossed on March 15 and had a nearly insurmountable advantage after wins in the northeast and mid-Atlantic in late April, when the process pushed past the 75 percent point on the calendar. No, Trump did not clinch that day, but his last challengers withdrew a week later. 

The 2024 calendar is not shaping up to be like any of those examples exactly. 50 percent of the delegates will have been allocated around the same point on the calendar in 2024 as 2016, but the 75 percent mark will come in much quicker succession thereafter. Again, it comes just two weeks later. That is a rapid delegate distribution. It is not 2008 fast, but it is fast. And March 25 is right there, late enough in process, but right in that calendar sweet spot where nomination decisions tend to be made in the Republican process.

The Emerging April Gap

Fast forward to March 25, 2024. The 50 percent mark has been surpassed in terms of delegates allocated and a candidate has a clear advantage in the delegate count. That candidate is almost always the frontrunner heading into primary season. Not always, but often enough. At this point in time, seven months out from Iowa starting the voting phase, that frontrunner is Donald Trump. He may not be in seven or nine months time. 

Regardless, this big external event is plopped down right in the middle of primary season. And it will not be over and done with on March 25. That trial will last a little bit and draw a lot of attention in the process. It will additionally likely overlap with the April 2 round of primaries. 

Now, the calendar is not set yet. But April 2 is poised to grow its footprint on the 2024 process in the coming days and weeks. Officially, Wisconsin is the only contest on that date as of now. However, bills have been proposed to move the ConnecticutDelaware and Rhode Island primaries to that date. There are signals that legislation is forthcoming from New York to move the presidential primary in the Empire state to April 2 as well. And talk is ramping up that Pennsylvania’s primary may land there also. 

Yet, in moving, those states are pulling up tent posts in late April and shifting them to the beginning of the month. That is going to hollow out the rest of April on the Republican calendar after April 2. There will potentially be no contests scheduled for the rest of the month.

There will potentially be no primaries or caucuses again until the Indiana primary on May 7. 

That is a five week gap with no contests. That is a five week gap that will exert a tremendous amount of pressure on the candidates trailing in the delegate count to close up shop and call it a day. That is a five week gap into which a trial that starts on March 25 will potentially creep and suck up even more attention (potentially away from those trailing candidates who need it most). 

However, that trial, while possibly drawing attention away from the campaign trail, will also create uncertainty; uncertainty as to the viability of the potential frontrunner and delegate leader. And despite feeling pressure to drop out, that may have the effect of, as Julia Azari and Seth Masket recently pointed out, keeping candidates who may otherwise have dropped out in past cycles in this race longer. 

But the point here is that this emerging April gap in the calendar is at the very point in the process when this trial is set to be going on. And there will be no contests or results to divert attention after April 2. Trump could have the nomination close to wrapped up by that point, but other trailing candidates could still be hanging around even as there are no primaries and caucuses for weeks. 

Look, this is already a weird dynamic. But throwing a trial into this rapid succession of delegate allocation followed by a gap in the action right as someone potentially gets close to clinching would create a strange matrix of incentives for all players involved. And that has implications for how the Republican nomination process winds down and transitions into the convention phase typically set aside to bring the party together for a general election run. 


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