Sunday, April 19, 2009

Trends in Frontloading: Bills Proposed and Passed Since 2001

FHQ does an awful lot of talking about current bills before state legislatures that would shift the dates of presidential primaries, but that is a service often done without much context. Sure, we're likely to opine on the delegate-richness of a state or whether that state holds its presidential primary concurrently with its primaries for state and local offices, but there is often less discussion about the overall success rate of frontloading bills that are proposed in various state legislatures or when in a particular presidential election cycle we would witness the most success.

Using data from the National Conference of State Legislatures' Election Reform database, I tracked the frontloading bills proposed and passed in the time since 2001 (the point to which this particular database dates back). This examination only relates to frontloading bills, and not a wider look at any bill that would shift the date of a state's presidential primary. It should be noted, though, that the incidence of so-call backloading are few and far between during this period. There is also a distinction that needs to be made in terms of the longeity of legislation. Bills introduced, not acted upon and carried over to the next legislative session are not counted in the total column until they get an up or down vote on the floor or die in committee. New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example, had a lot of frontloading bills that appeared in multiple sessions (same bill number across sessions). A similar situation happened recently with the bill to move Georgia's presidential primary back to March in 2012. The final caveat is that this only applies to states where the state legislature is charged with setting the date of the presidential delegate selection event. That obviously excludes caucus states, drawing down the overall number of frontloading states in the process. Still, as the results charted below show, there is a pattern to be gleaned from the primary data that will, in most cases, apply to caucus states as well.

[Click to Enlarge]

During this decade, then, we see that most of the movement in state legislatures on the frontloading front takes place in the year prior to a presidential election. As is the case with the public, legislators are not terribly concerned with the next presidential election until it is almost time for the next go-round. In terms of frontloading bills passed, this is an easy trend to track: There is a spike of successful activity (red line above) in the year before an election that dies down to nearly nothing during the election year (when many state legislators are thinking about their own reelection races) and then gradually grows over the next couple of years before spiking again just before the next presidential election year.

That trend does not necessarily hold overall for proposed legislation (blue line above). In the case of introducing a bill, we see that the most activity is still in the years immediately prior to a presidential election year, but the activity does not tail off in the same way as it does for bills passed. For proposed legislation, there is seemingly a flurry of activity following a presidential election year. If we think of presidential election years as year one in the next cycle of frontloading, then we see some legislative activity (bill introductions) in the year of the presidential election (with the next primary cycle in mind and the just completed primary cycle experience still fresh) and that gradually trails off before bottoming out in the year of the midterm congressional elections.

All that leaves is a simple relationship: The closer those two lines are to each other, the more successful state legislatures have been in moving their primaries to earlier dates. To get a better idea of this, let's superimpose the percent success rate over that previous graph.

[Click to Enlarge]

Now, we're getting somewhere. The biggest overlap between the original two lines is (bills proposed and bills passed) is in the years immediately prior to a presidential election year. That success rate drops off to nothing (or nearly nothing) during a presidential election year and in some cases the year after before building up again as the next primary season approaches. At its height, the success rate across this period still only approaches about 40%. In other words, the success rate improves in those years just prior to a presidential election year, but only about two out of every five frontloading bills is passed and signed by a governor in a good year.

What does all of this mean? Well, for starters, all this talk about North Carolina and Oregon and Texas moving forward in 2012 is a bit premature in 2009. 2011? Yeah, they may have a better chance of succeeding then. But a lot of other states may be (and probably will be) considering moves by that time; states that are in better positions to move in the first place. It could be that what we're are seeing here are two groups of states: Those with comfortable unified partisan control waiting to move because they can, and states where divided government or governments controlled by the party in the White House continue to see legislators attempting to gradually gather support for a frontloading bill by continually reintroducing versions of it. Of the three states above, North Carolina and Oregon fall into the latter category. Texas, however, fits the former, but has a bill being pushed by a member of the minority party (which is the same as the party controlling the White House). All told, Rep. Roberto Alonzo might actually see some Republican support for the frontloading bill in Texas should it carry over to a future session or should he reintroduce it in the future (say, 2011).

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