Monday, October 17, 2011

Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Boycotts and the Scheduling of the Last [First] Three Contests

When the Nevada Republican Party set the date for its 2012 presidential nominating caucuses earlier this month, the action seemingly end the state's involvement in the finalization of the 2012 presidential primary calendar. Theoretically, that should have ushered in a phase in which Iowa and New Hampshire negotiated for or simply just set the dates of their respective contests during the first ten or so days of January 2012. The process did move in the direction, but not without Nevada. No, New Hampshire threatened to slide its primary into December 2011, Iowa Republicans tentatively selected January 3 as the date of their caucuses, and New Hampshire again threatened a December primary and went after Nevada and not Iowa in the immediate aftermath.

That was a curious move in and of itself. Instead of simply scheduling the primary for January 3 and forcing Iowa Republicans to swallow the bitter pill of a December contest, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner gave Iowa a pass by leaving a December New Hampshire primary on the table and going after Nevada instead. Now, as I mentioned last week, that signaled a couple of things. First, it was a move made with a nod toward Iowa and the notion that there just is not enough time at the beginning of the year -- before January 14 -- to fit both Iowa and New Hampshire contests in without violating the laws  on primary/caucus scheduling in both; in Iowa requiring eight days between its caucuses and the next contests and in New Hampshire requiring seven days between its primary and the next "similar" contest. the second thing it signaled was that Bill Gardner did not really want to hold the New Hampshire primary in December.

The first builds on the second. By not simply settling for the January 3 date -- the next earliest date that New Hampshire could have scheduled its primary without violating its seven day buffer law -- Gardner is attempting to bring Iowa into fold. In other words, if Nevada just moves back three days -- at least -- it allows Iowa and New Hampshire to fit contests into January that also abide by their state laws and uphold the traditional alignment of the calendar. Again, even if one of the first four states slips over into 2011, all four will be on trial in the time between 2012-2016. Their positions will be anyway.

It is in all four early states' best interests then to do whatever is necessary to keep this from spilling over into 2011. One will notice that there was nary a mention of Iowa in Secretary Gardner's statement last week. The attempt was to link Iowa and New Hampshire as a means of upholding the traditional alignment. The focus was on Nevada instead.

And that has reignited the standoff between New Hampshire and Nevada. It is a standoff that now includes candidate boycotts of Nevada -- something witnessed in the past. However, this time the challenge to New Hampshire is much stronger than in the past. The best way to tackle this is to look at the advantages for both.


  • New Hampshire can deem Nevada "not similar" to circumvent the seven day buffer. [Yes, Nevada has a caucus and New Hampshire has a primary, but that is not the metric Gardner is using. The measure is one of attention and because Nevada, unlike 2008, has delegates at stake in the precinct caucuses, it is better able to woo candidates and gain media attention as well.]
  • New Hampshire can schedule a non-Tuesday primary. [Gardner has already signalled that he is unwilling to go this route because of the conflict with the Jewish sabbath day. That does leave other days between January 3 and January 7 open though.]
  • Most of the frontrunners are not boycotting Nevada. [Romney is playing with house money in New Hampshire and can afford to ignore the boycott if others do. That may affect him, but probably only at the margins. It will not cut into the consistently sizable leads the former Massachusetts governor has held in the polls of the Granite state. Perry, on the other hand, cannot boycott a state where he has garnered the endorsement of the Nevada governor.]
  • The New Hampshire Republican Party chair called for Gardner to deem Nevada "not similar". [That didn't sit well with the Editorial Board at the Union-Leader. And from New Hampshire's perspective, the board is absolutely right.]

New Hampshire:

  • New Hampshire can threaten and attempt to hold a December primary. [There are cracks in the December plan. There are potential conflicts with federal legislation to protect the voting rights of military personnel overseas, though those concerns have been overstated. There are also potential budgetary conflicts on the town and ward level with a December primary.]
  • Iowa and tradition. [By not going at Iowa once Nevada had set its caucuses date, New Hampshire has kept up its alliance with the Hawkeye state. That has also kept alive the possibility that the two could work together to pressure Nevada to shift its date. This one is delicate because New Hampshire has to keep alive the threat of pushing the primary into 2011 and either leapfrog Iowa in the process or force the caucuses into 2011 as well if Iowa wishes to maintain its first in the nation status.  Gardner, then, is wielding a stick, but holding out the carrot of maintaining the "proper" order but with the requisite amount of time called for by law in both of the first two states. ...if only Iowa helps pressure Nevada. Now that may be a leap of faith, but New Hampshire is betting on the prospect of going in December forcing a reexamination of the early states' positions helping them to pressure the other early states. That is not working with Nevada. But will it with Iowa where there is more tradition behind holding the first contest? Perhaps.]

From the perspective of image, New Hampshire is losing this fight. Nevada seemingly has too many "yeah, buts" to throw at New Hampshire and Gardner to this point has simply balked at them while simultaneously threatening to move to December. Nevada, then, is mounting the best challenge to not New Hampshire's position per se, but to the infrastructure and means Secretary Gardner has utilized over the years to keep the Granite state up front. The candidate boycott is incomplete this time. There are cracks in the plan to hold a December primary. The only thing to save New Hampshire at this point from blowing up the current system -- at least the first four states' positions at the beginning of it -- is Iowa banding together with New Hampshire to avoid December contests to protect not only the status of the first two states, but the first four states as well.

Nevada has called that bluff. Will Iowa?

That is the question today as the Iowa Republican State Central Committee meets to presumably set the date of the caucuses for January 3. The day could go one of three ways:

  1. Iowa selects January 3. That signals that they are confident that New Hampshire will work something out with Nevada and that they will help New Hampshire pressure Nevada to protect the calendar and the current system.
  2. Iowa selects January 3. In this version, Iowa is telling New Hampshire that it is on its own; to go in December if it wants. Of course, that is something that Iowa would want to avoid because of what that may do to the national parties' ideas about which states should start the process.
  3. Iowa holds off on setting a date until the New Hampshire/Nevada impasse is resolved. Such a move would do more than anything else to validate the New Hampshire threat to hold a December primary. That could, in turn, apply some pressure to Nevada to push back a few days to protect their position in future cycles. 

This calendar will have to resolve itself sooner rather than later. Today marks the opening of the period in which candidates can file to run in New Hampshire and with that we enter a point of no return to some extent. Nevada has one ace up its sleeve in all of this: time. The party can continue to make preparations for a January 14 caucus knowing that time is slipping away for New Hampshire and Iowa to jump into 2011 and have prepared properly for that. Pressure from Iowa and New Hampshire or not, that is a powerful tool. Again, Nevada has called New Hampshire's bluff. Will Iowa follow suit or will Iowa join New Hampshire in threatening their own future self interest and Nevada's by keeping the 2011 contests on the table?

We shall see.

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