Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Case for a First Saturday After the First Tuesday in March Primary in Louisiana

Earlier this week FHQ took a look at some of the preliminary discussions in Louisiana as to where the state should move its presidential primary in order to comply with national party rules governing delegate selection in 2012. The two main ideas within the ranks of the Republican Party in the Pelican state -- the party that controls the state legislature and thus the means of altering the primary date -- were to either carve out a less populated date the weekend after the first Tuesday in March or to shift back into April to take advantage of the RNC allowance for winner-take-all allocation after April 1.

Louisiana Republican Party chair, Roger Villere, prefers the latter while Republican State Central Committee member, Mike Bayham, continues to make a push for a set up similar to 2008 when the state positioned its primary on the second Saturday of February. As Bayham points out...
However, by moving to the first Saturday allowed by the national parties in March, Louisiana would be holding its primary before the nominations have been wrapped up.

Most importantly, candidates will have an interest in campaigning here since the major contenders will be assured of leaving the state with something (unlike the controversial system in 2008 where Mike Huckabee received a plurality of the vote but not a single delegate).

With the Louisiana primary held only a few days after the front-loaded first Tuesday in March primary date, the nomination will still be undecided, thus candidates will have to spend time here and educate themselves about federal issues that affect our state, specifically energy production and coastal erosion.

The difference between having the Louisiana presidential primary on the first Saturday following the first Tuesday in March versus any date in April is whether we want our state to matter enough for presidential candidates to visit and make commitments on the federal issues that affect our state versus reverting to our previous role as an irrelevant amen corner.
This discussion highlights the calculus that goes into the primary positioning decision in states the size of Louisiana. More often than not the calculus is simply a matter of giving primary voters in a state a say in selecting a nominee as opposed to gambling with falling after the point at which one candidate has amassed 50% of the delegates plus one (or has a large enough delegate lead to made surpassing that point inevitable). The later a contest is, the less the chances that the results in that state will prove consequential in a nomination race. Bayham is making the point that April will fall too late for Louisiana to matter in 2012. And it is a gamble to be sure. But so too is holding a primary the weekend immediately after Super Tuesday. It isn't clear at this point that the Republican nomination race will not have wrapped up by that point either. The intention is understood though. The attempt is to carve out a niche where Louisiana might have an influence over the process.

Again, it isn't readily apparent that that Saturday position is going to be any more advantageous than an early April date or for that matter any different than the similar position Louisiana was in during the 2008 cycle. I can understand that changing the state-level method of allocating delegates may make a difference,1 but how much impact will a change there have on the clearest ways of quantifying influence: candidate visits and media attention. How much better than 23 visits can Louisiana do? Will tweaking the delegate allocation rules on the state level impact that to any great degree?

If states seek to increase either of these measures of attention there are a few rules of the game to use as a guide. Bayham follows one of them quite closely: take note of the number of states with simultaneously scheduled contests. The less crowded the date is, the more it follows that the state would receive more attention. This is also conditioned by how early or late a contest is. Earlier is still better in most cases. The other thing for state actors to look at in making this decision is the national party rules.

Again, it appears that both Republican ideas in the Louisiana case attempt to effectively utilize the national party rules as a means of maximizing the Pelican state's influence. On the one hand, Villere is following the 2008 model; that the race will last longer and that Louisiana could fall into that sweet spot in the calendar where there are not a great number of contests. On top of that, Louisiana could opt for winner-take-all allocation after that point and potentially increase its influence even more. On the other hand, Bayham is estimating that Super Tuesday (and any contests prior to that point) will go a long way toward deciding who the Republican nominee will be and that Louisiana could either continue to help or actually put one candidate over the 50% plus one delegate threshold.

The only clear way for states historically to greatly affect their influence is to move in a year when the parties open the window in which contests can be held. Early adopters of earlier and earlier primaries over the years have been able to increase the amount of attention they receive and that that lasts until that date becomes crowded with other contests in subsequent cycles. This was a point I made back in 2009 when Indiana's legislature was considering a resolution to study the prudence of moving the state's presidential primary to an earlier date was that Indiana had missed their chance. In a series of posts (here, here and here) I found that Indiana would have been better served having moved ahead of the 2004 nomination cycle when the Democrats opened their window to, like the Republicans, allow for February primaries and caucuses. The handful of states that moved up in 2004 by and large increased their amount of attention from 2000 to 2004. When the mass of states that moved to early February for 2008 joined those states, their influence from 2004 disappeared.

Obviously, this is not an option for Louisiana in 2012. They could continue to hold a February primary, but as Bayham points out, that would reduce Louisiana's delegate total enough -- by 50% -- to make it virtually meaningless; not a recipe for drawing candidate and/or media attention. That means that those with the date-setting decision-making power in the state have to find a date that somehow maximizes the state's influence rather than placing it in a position after which the nomination is settled and Louisiana primary voters only ratify a decision made in other states.

To me neither option of the two being discussed by Louisiana Republicans is clearly better than the other. What's driving that to some degree is the uncertainty surrounding the race for the Republican nomination. With prospective candidates holding off on their decisions to enter the race, the development of the field has been stunted. And what, more than anything else, is going to determine how long the nomination race lasts once it enters the primary and caucus phase is whether a clear frontrunner has emerged from the field either during the invisible primary or through success during that period combined with solidifying wins in early contests. No, that doesn't directly affect the decisions that are being made at the state level now on where primaries and caucuses are positioned for 2012, but it is affecting how those actors think about how long the nomination process will last. And that is affecting where states that are considering a move -- or being forced to move due to national party rules -- are considering where to move those contests.

1The state required a candidate to receive a majority of the votes in the primary to win any delegates to the Republican Convention, and though both Mike Huckabee and John McCain cleared 40% of the vote in Louisiana, the delegates allocated in the primary went to the convention unpledged.

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