Sunday, May 14, 2023

Sunday Series: An Update on 2024 Presidential Primary Movement

Back in March, FHQ had an initial glimpse at early legislation to move, establish or eliminate state-run presidential primary elections for the 2024 cycle. And the picture then was one of a fairly sleepy cycle for movers and shakers on the 2024 presidential primary calendar. In the two months since, things have changed, but the story has basically stayed the same. 

First of all, 2023 looks a lot like the other years immediately prior to a presidential election year during the 21st century. That is the year -- the legislative session -- in the cycle that sees the most activity. To most state legislators, there is more, or has proven to be more, urgency to establish and/or position state-run (and funded) contests at that point than at any other time. It is on their radars. 

The 2023 legislative session has not strayed from that trend, but two months further on into it, the activity has not necessarily remained sleepy. In fact, there are now more bills that have been introduced in state legislatures across the country to schedule or reschedule presidential primaries for 2024 than there were in all of 2019 ahead of the competitive Democratic presidential nomination race. Part of the reason for that is partisan. Despite Democratic gains in state legislatures in the 2018 midterm cycle, Republicans continued to control the bulk of state legislatures in 2019. Presidential primary positioning may have been on the minds of Republican majorities in state legislatures, but it was not the priority to them that it would have been to Democratic legislators. 

However, even with fewer bills introduced overall, 2019 saw a higher success rate -- primary scheduling bills signed into law -- than the 2023 session has seen to this point. Yes, more and more state legislatures are adjourning their regular sessions for the year, but 2023 is still young. Primary bills have passed and been signed into law in four states as of mid-May: Idaho, Kansas, Maryland and Michigan. But there are more in the pipeline that look poised to pass (Connecticut, Rhode Island) and others where legislation is likely to eventually move (Pennsylvania) or be introduced in the first place (New Jersey, New York).

And that particular subset of states -- those in the northeast and mid-Atlantic -- are all signaling (or potentially signaling) an alignment that will have some impact on the overall calendar. Most of those states have in recent cycles occupied spots on the calendar in late April. Yet, with Passover falling in that window in 2024, legislators in some of those states are looking at a point a little earlier in the calendar: April 2. If Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island all join Wisconsin on that first Tuesday in April, then it will likely serve as the backside bookend of the delegate sweet spot on the calendar. All at once, the winner-take-all window will open in the Republican process on March 19 and the number of delegates allocated will hit 50 percent and then 75 percent in quick succession by April 2.1 And that would trigger the 50-75 rule that has so often been a guide to when Republican nomination races of the recent past have signaled the presumptive nominee. 

But all of that depends to some degree on what happens in that group of northeastern/mid-Atlantic states. Legislators actually have to do the hard work of legislating. And as both Idaho and Missouri have proven already in 2023, that endeavor is easier said than done. Regular sessions have ended in both states and neither has a state-run presidential primary option for 2024. Idaho eliminated their stand-alone March presidential primary and Missouri failed to reestablish their own. Yet, the door is not completely closed on either state. Revived pushes for a presidential primary option may come up in special sessions should they be called. That not only raises the possibility of primaries coming back, but also more bills to be added to the mix above both in terms of the overall number of primary bills and the success rate as well. 

Finally, note that none of the bills discussed or hinted at thus far are in any way threatening the beginning of the calendar. That is significant. Yes, that Michigan bill that was signed into law shifted the presidential primary in the Great Lakes state into the early window in the Democratic process, but that will have limited impact on how the beginning of the 2024 presidential primary calendar shakes out during the rest of 2023. Iowa Democrats appear to have found a way out of the penalties trap and New Hampshire continues to indicate its intention to go rogue, but how far into January Iowa Republicans and New Hampshire end up depends on what Nevada Republicans opt to do (and to a lesser extent how South Carolina Republicans react to that).

Many wondered aloud whether the Democratic National Committee decision to shuffle the primary calendar would set off a rush to the beginning of the calendar like in 2008. It has not. However, that decision has increased the level of uncertainty about the early part of the calendar. But the South Carolina Democratic primary being scheduled on February 3 means that there is a pretty narrow range of possibilities for the remaining undecided early states on the Republican side of the ledger. The big thing about the early calendar to internalize at this point is that neither Iowa nor New Hampshire are scheduled for early February. They never have been and will not be from the look of things at this point in 2023.

1 A reminder: Just because the Republican winner-take-all window opens on March 15 does not mean that every state after that point will use winner-take-all rules. It just means that they all will have that option. 


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