Saturday, October 24, 2009

Democratic Change Commission Meeting #2: Timing

Frank Leone over at DemRulz is on the scene in Washington and has a rundown of the morning half of the Change Commission's meeting. The group picked up with what they were to have addressed during their August meeting (postponed due to Ted Kennedy's funeral): public comments on the issues the group is charged with examining.

Let's look at what was discussed on the issue of timing (Would you expect anything less from Frontloading HQ?). From DemRulz:
"Curtis Gans, Director of the Study of the American Electorate at American University made a presentation. He criticized the 1988 Super Tuesday Southern primary for starting the race to early primaries; this resulted in a process based on “state selfishness.” It is more important to select the best person to be president than for a state to get more attention. He recommended a bipartisan, durable system with less frontloading and less moving around. He recommended starting with smaller, diverse, individual primaries, and a spread-out process – not regional primaries. Regional primaries may result in different candidates representing different regions and split the party. He opposes a rotation where it all changes every four years. He favors a long process which worked this year, allowing candidates flexibility to skip certain states, 20-day filing deadlines to allow new candidates to file. Spread out individual primaries will encourage grassroots and discourage negative campaigning – if you have 20 primaries on one day, you need to rely on negative TV. He would prefer to start the whole process in March, but is okay with IA, NH, SC, and NV going early — it worked well in 2008. In response to a question from Jeff Berman, he stated that there is an opportunity for cooperation with RNC in setting calendar and the GOP is likely to agree on starting date."
...and also...
"Hon. Dan Blue (Comm. Member, NC State Senator) – late primaries can be good. In 2008, NC linked the presidential primary with state office primaries, the late primary got a lot of attention, and Obama and Democratic candidates won in November. Grouping of 29 states on the same day is crazy – you need to break it up, spread out process."
Gans is right to blame 1988, but the idea of a Southern primary movement had its origins in the mid-1970s and was actually begun when Georgia and Alabama moved to coincide with Florida in 1980 (at the Carter administration’s behest). At the time, New Hampshire and Massachusetts were early and gave Kennedy a potential leg up in the race. So, it didn’t actually start off as state selfishness so much as the administration’s need to regain the 1980 nomination. By 1988, when the other Southern states moved, that had morphed into state (or regional really) selfishness.

The proposals are nice to see and it is great to idealize what happened a year ago, but I still don’t see any incentive structure to get any of the bloc of early states to move back in the process. The bonus delegate regime has not been effective and the winner-take-all proposal for later states is flawed. Bipartisanship would help, but both parties have to stand unified behind any plan they construct together.

Leone then adds his thoughts:
"My thoughts: The most important point re timing is that the DNC (even with the RNC) does not have the power to set a single primary date and is not writing on a blank slate. State legislatures set primary schedules and proposed changes need to account for political realities – like IA and NH are going to go first. Thus I believe that a rotating process, consisting of changing dates in every state every four years is a non-starter. Super regional primaries, that don’t change, do run the risk of favoring candidates from certain regions (although famously this was not the case in the 1988 Super Tuesday Southern primary). Mini-regional primaries, like last year’s Potomac Primary (VA, DC, MD), allow campaigns to focus their resources and states should consider such groupings. As to the basic schedule – a long term process, starting in March for most states (with the now traditional early states of IA, NH, SC, and NV going after Feb. 1) makes sense. Spreading out primaries, using bonus delegates, as was the case with NC and other states this year also allows for a full vetting of candidates and should result in a better choice."
Exactly right. Regional primaries are simply just a no-go from a state legislative standpoint. It is inherently unfair because both parties don't always have contested nomination races every year. As a result, some segment of the primary electorate on one or both sides of the partisan aisle may miss out on having an impact on their party's nomination when their state gets to go early. That alone will pit Democratic-controlled state legislatures against Republican-controlled ones.

Again though, to think of and idealize the North Carolinas and Pennsylvanias and Indianas just because they lucked out and happened to have a protracted battle fall into their laps, doesn't mean that it is possible to make states go later (or at the very best to incentivize them doing so). That assumes that the Clinton-Obama nomination race is the new normal. It could be, but I doubt it.

There's a lot of talk about the bonus delegate system and how North Carolina benefited from it in 2008. Yes, they gained, but only because they had a higher barrier to frontloading than other states had. If the Tarheel state did not hold its primaries for state and local offices on the same date as their presidential primary, they likely would have moved as well. But moving from the North Carolina General Assembly meant more than just moving to an earlier date; it meant funding an all new election (for the presidential primary) or moving everything else up. The latter is seen as a negative because that would affect turnout in down-ballot primaries in which the legislators themselves are involved (see Atkeson and Maestas).

On further on that point, Leone adds:
"Note – It was claimed that most states have presidential and state primaries on the same day, but it’s not clear that this is true and certainly hasn’t been true in Virginia."
Most states DO NOT have their state and local primaries in conjunction with their presidential primaries. That is the main reason that most of the states that have moved over the years have been able to do so.

I have shown that in my own research (Shameless, FHQ, shameless.). Prior to 1996, states with split primaries (presidential and state/local) were about 7 times more likely to make a move forward. After 1996, that dropped to only 2 times more likely. But still states with concurrent primary structures (still the minority) are less likely to move forward. That claim, then, is false. Where it is partially true is when you look at ONLY primary states. Once caucus states are considered (and most of them are held apart from the nominating contests for other offices), it is not the case. That is why caucus states have a much easier time of moving. [Dare I cite myself again? Oh, what the heck.]

I catch a lot of flack for being a negative nellie and shooting down all these ideas. That really isn't the case. I've made a career of looking at the unintended consequences of rules changes to the presidential primary process. My main argument has always been that if you are going to make reforms you absolutely have to take into consideration all of the potential unintended consequences. Otherwise, there is a risk that the reform measures just make things worse. Besides, from a Democratic perspective, the system did just work rather effectively. Obama is in the White House. [Well, some may have preferred having a Clinton in the White House.] Granted, it has worked well from a GOP perspective in the past as well.

I think the proposals to spread the calendar out are the right way to go, but there just has not been an effective incentive structure proposed that would offset the state-level desire to move forward on the calendar. The first step in getting to that point, in my opinion, is have both parties work together to create a unified reform. Without that, states will continue to have the ability to pit the two parties' rule structures against each other as a means of maintaining the status quo.

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