Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why the Democratic Change Commission's March 1 Mandate Will Be a Tough Sell Without a Bipartisan Primary Reform Plan

One thing that was made clear at this past weekend's Democratic Change Commission meeting was that the group's final recommendation to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee would heed the call of the convention provision that created the group in the first place. Namely, in regards to the timing of presidential primaries in 2012, the DCC is committed to closing the window on February delegate selection events (with the exception of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina).

But the March 1 mandate is problematic for the very same reasons that make reforming the presidential process difficult: that the lack of a bipartisan approach hampers the entire effort at reform. And without bipartisan action to confront the reform process, there could potentially be several classes of states.
  • The first distinction to be made is between states that have to move the date on which their delegate selection events are held and those that don't have to do anything to reach compliance. Well, there were a lot of February states in 2008.
  • Secondly, there is a line that separates caucus states and primary states on this as well. The dates on which caucuses are held are determined by the state parties more often than not, while state governments (state legislatures and governors) set primary dates. State party compliance is easier to come by than state legislative compliance (see here for more on this point.).
  • On a level that is more troublesome, however, is where the March 1 mandate intersects with state governmental action. In states where the Democratic Party is in control of the state government, there may be some difficulty getting legislation altering the date on which any state's primary is held, but it would likely be minor compared to the potential resistance faced in states where the Republican Party controls both the executive and legislative branches.
Again, all this assumes that the GOP does nothing to significantly alter the rules governing their delegate selection process. Yes, the party took the unprecedented step of creating a group (the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee) to look at those rules outside of the convention for the first time. Now, the party could opt to stick with the frontloaded system as a means of settling the 2012 nomination quickly in order to prepare for a long general election campaign against Obama. They could also radically alter the primary process in a way that exceeds what the Democratic Change Commission is charged with examining. In either scenario, a go-it-alone strategy by either party likely nets them both a situation where there is a partisan discrepancy in some states. In other words, some states may have no incentive to go along with one of the parties' rules.

That's how we get back to the battle lines outlined above. Let's key in on that last one for the moment because that is where this gets Florida/Michigan messy. For the moment, let's assume that there are only minor changes to the Republican rules, that the Democrats go forward with this March 1 mandate for all non-exempt states, and that the GOP continues to allow February primaries and caucuses (Keep in mind Hawaii Republicans have already staked a claim to February 21, 2012 as the date for their caucus.). How many states have or will potentially have unified Republican control of the state government and could completely ignore Democratic rules (in the way that the Florida state government did a year ago)?

There are elections to be held that could change this before the 2012 delegate selection rules are adopted by both parties sometime next year. However, there are only three states that would not be in compliance with Democratic Party rules (a March 1 mandate assumed) given the current shape of the 2012 presidential primary calendar: Arizona, Florida and Georgia. Well, that's not that many. No, it isn't and that doesn't even include the caveat that Arizona's governor can use the power of proclamation to move the primary date to a more competitive date. [Traditionally, that has meant that the late February primary date that is on the books has been moved to early February. There is no language that I know of in the gubernatorial proclamation law that could allow the governor to move the primary back. That would be a test of the law. That point may be moot if Jan Brewer or another Republican is elected in Arizona next year. They wouldn't be motivated to move the date back to comply with the Democratic Party's rules for delegate selection anyway.]

Three isn't that many. Again, it isn't, but what's missing is states where there is a unified Republican legislature and a Democratic governor. The governor in those states can't make the state legislature pass a law just to comply with another party's rules. That adds three more states: Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Of course, those latter two may very well have Republican governors after the 2010 elections. Democrats in Tennessee and Oklahoma have very little depth on the bench behind either Bredesen in Tennessee or Henry in Oklahoma.

Now, we've already potentially tripled the Florida and Michigan problem from 2008. But what about early states with legislatures that have two chambers split between the two parties. One chamber (the Democratic one) may want to push a bill through that would bring the state's primary within the Democratic delegate selection rules, but the other chamber may find some better use of their legislative time. Well, that nets us two more states, Michigan and Virginia.

That would present the Democratic Party with a real dilemma. Eight states would potentially be in violation of the party's 2012 rules (specifically the March 1 mandate) through no fault of their own. Either legislative gridlock or unified Republican control of the state government could prevent compliance. How do you penalize states in that scenario? Would the state parties be forced to foot the bill for a party-run primary or caucus?

It is just this sort of exercise that the Democratic Change Commission should be considering. There have been a number of questions in both meetings thus far along the lines of "is coordination with the RNC possible?" that give a sense of detachment. Both parties are set to nail down the 2012 rules next year and yet there is no apparent effort at coordination taking place (at least not at the level of the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee or the Change Commission) despite the very real possibility that problems like those described above could take place.

Food for thought.

Recent Posts:
State of the Race: New Jersey Governor (10/26/09)

State of the Race: Virginia Governor (10/26/09)

Wrong! Wrong! A Thousand Times Wrong! One Bit of Misinformation from the Democratic Change Commission's Meeting This Past Weekend

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