Monday, June 27, 2011

Romney's Pushing for an Earlier Utah Primary?

The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that the Romney campaign is working to get the Utah presidential primary moved up from the late June date Utah Republicans settled on earlier this month. There is a lot to talk about here. For our purposes at FHQ, we are more concerned with the movement of the primary, but there are also strategic implications as well. Let's take the the primary first.

Moving the primary
The complicating factors for moving the presidential primary are 1) the legislature has already adjourned for 2011 and 2) the budget the legislature passed in March (and was later signed into law) did not appropriate any funds for the presidential primary. What, then, is the mechanism by which the Utah primary date can be altered? Technically, the legislature is still somewhat in session. The body wrapped up the bulk of its work in March and has set aside two days each month (except April, August and December) for committee and task force meetings. A move can be made, but there is a very narrow window in which the legislature has to work. More problematic perhaps are the budgetary roadblocks. Not only will the legislature have to pass (and have the governor sign off on) the appropriation of the necessary $2.5 million in funds for the presidential primary, but it will have to change the date of the contest as well. The "Western State Presidential Primary" is still scheduled for the first Tuesday in February. The only thing that changed that when the legislature adjourned, having not acted on the primary, was that it had not set aside the money necessary to hold the contest. That set in motion the move to June when there was already a primary scheduled for statewide offices. It was a matter of efficiency and cost savings. The financial implications are understood, but what was left out in the Tribune article was the fact that the date will have to be changed in the current law.

The legislature was not amenable to that idea when it was in session, and it isn't clear that the legislature would be any more open to the idea now. The Romney campaign is making the case for why the late date could hurt Utah in terms of influencing the nomination.

Kirk Jowers, an adviser to the Romney team, said the June primary is so late in the presidential nominating process that it would make Utah meaningless.

“Utah now knows what it feels like to be relevant in a presidential contest,” Jowers said, referring to the state’s February 2008 primary in the last election. “I can’t imagine Utah wants to go back to being irrelevant.”

That provides the state with the motivation -- or some perceived motivation -- to move, but what's in this for the Romney campaign. That is not particularly clear.

Campaign Strategy
I really have no idea what the aim of the Romney camp is on this one, but we can speculate. They have run a fabulous campaign thus far, but this move is something of a head-scratcher. The Huntsman-Romney angle was played up in the article but I'm skeptical of that. Is the Romney campaign really threatened by the Huntsman candidacy to the point that it needs to beat the former Utah governor on his own turf to eliminate him from the competition? To me, that only unnecessarily elevates Huntsman now when his campaign hasn't gotten off to the best of starts. No campaign is going to do that.

No, I don't think that is it. Even if it was -- as an insurance policy -- just in case Huntsman ever took off, it would be like playing with fire. Huntsman is only going to ever take off at Romney's expense. No, what I'm looking at is what little the Romney campaign is saying on the subject. Note the line from the campaign to supporter and Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell (R) who asked "Is this [moving the primary] important to you?": "A win is a win and delegate votes may really count," he was told in response by the Romney folks. Indeed. That is evidence that it is more than just Huntsman; that the Romney campaign is playing it close to the vest and eying a potentially long, drawn-out battle for the nomination. But if that's the case, why not leave Utah as the last contest; the ultimate insurance policy? If things are closely knotted between Romney and anti-Romney at that point, Utah plays the kingmaker. That is one option, but the Romney team is willing to divvy up a proportional Utah pie (all pre-April contests are to have some proportional element to them, sort of) earlier as a means of building something of an early lead that will prove insurmountable to the rest of the field.

Honestly, I think this is a nod to the calendar that is most likely to develop. Let's assume that Romney wins New Hampshire and Nevada, as expected, and some other candidate takes Iowa and South Carolina. Florida, Michigan, Arizona and Minnesota will, in my opinion, hold February or earlier contests (More on this later in the week.) after the other four go in January. Those are all good states for Romney potentially, but they will all be proportional contests and are likely to be sanctioned in some form (The current penalty is a 50% delegate deduction). That is not a formula for building an insurmountable lead. A lead yes, but not an insurmountable one.

The problem for Romney is what comes next. The battle heads South after that with contests in Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Virginia, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi all in the first two weeks of March. Romney doesn't have a clear winner in the bunch there. His campaign would have the Colorado caucuses (which would couple nicely with a Utah primary on March 6) and primaries in Massachusetts and Vermont which the remaining field would cede to the former Massachusetts governor and later the Hawaii caucuses. [Recall, Romney did quite well in the caucus states in 2008.] That is much of a firewall against what is likely to be a bloodbath in the South (and the development of a Southern problem narrative in the media).

Utah, then, isn't necessary in March for Romney, but it would help to stop the bleeding after what would likely be a setback in the South in March. That would give way to more hospitable contests in Illinois and Maryland through late March and early April and the regional primary in the northeast (Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island) in late April. That is the wave of contests that could actually settle this nomination and are all favorable to Romney.

That's the best I can come up with. Does Utah need to move? Need is a strong word, but the Romney folks have apparently thought enough of the idea to work toward that end in Utah. It would be part of a counter, though not a complete one, to potential losses when the calendar swings south. That is their concern, not eliminating Huntsman.


Anonymous said...

In a lot of these caucus states, Romney ran to the right of McCain.
In 2012, other candidates will likely run to Romney's right. Also Romney had no competition as McCain chose not to contest these states and Huckabee never got organized enough.

Also Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island
may not be as friendly. In Delaware, O'Donnell upset Castle and the turnout was higher than the 2008 presidential primary. Rhode Island has been proportional, and NY has moved away from a wta to proportional at the CD level.

Josh Putnam said...

Good points.

McCain chose to go after the winner-take-all states on Super Tuesday and Romney took advantage of an early money advantage in those Super Tuesday caucus states.

Huckabee did win the Kansas caucuses (after Iowa), but on the whole, you're right, he did not have the requisite organization.

Connecticut and Delaware are closed and winner-take-all contests. New York is also closed but newly proportional. Pennsylvania is a closed, loophole primary and Rhode Island is semi-open and proportional. Rules will matter, but let's be careful about drawing comparisons between low turnout midterm primaries and higher turnout presidential primaries (especially if the latter is competitive). Romney won't necessarily have an advantage just because those are blue states, but more so because there are, on the whole, more moderate registered Republicans there (as opposed to, say, the South).

But yes, that is an excellent point. Rules matter. Period.