Thursday, October 13, 2011

On Defining "Similar Contest" and Candidate Boycott Pledges

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner yesterday reactivated the standoff between the Granite state and Nevada Republicans over the scheduling of their delegate selection events. And has once again set off a firestorm. The clearest signal that the statement yesterday sent was that Secretary Gardner has no intention of fighting with Iowa over the earliest January date available -- January 3. That shifted the battlefront back further out west to Nevada and the Republican Party caucus there.

Not surprisingly, Nevada Republicans were non-plussed about the development. The party has already set a date for its caucuses, January 14, and had opted to leave New Hampshire to their own devices. Passing on a fight with Iowa, New Hampshire again set its sights on the Nevada contest. The reaction was typical. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval fell into the same trap that many do when attempting to dissect the New Hampshire law that guides the setting of the presidential primary date in the state: the part about the similar election. Here's the law again:
"Presidential Primary Election. The presidential primary election shall be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a date selected by the secretary of state which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, or holds a caucus or in the interpretation of the secretary of state holds any contest at which delegates are chosen for the national conventions, whichever is earlier, of each year when a president of the United States is to be elected or the year previous. Said primary shall be held in connection with the regular March town meeting or election or, if held on any other day, at a special election called by the secretary of state for that purpose. Any caucus of a state first held before 1975 shall not be affected by this provision."
Governor Sandoval and now an apparently-nervous New Hampshire Republican Party chair -- Wayne MacDonald -- are telling Secretary Gardner to re-read the election law citing the "similar election" clause. Here's MacDonald:
“I would like him [Gardner] to reconsider whether Nevada is a similar election,” Wayne MacDonald told the Granite Status. “January 10 makes an awful lot of sense for our primary. It keeps us seven days after Iowa and puts us ahead of Nevada. I think it just fits in well and we're going to be the first primary, which is critically important.”
“A primary election is an election, a caucus is a caucus,” MacDonald said. “With all due respect to Bill Gardner, I really think there is a difference. 
“One is run by the party and one is run by the state,” he said. “There's a difference between a primary and a caucus.”
That is all well and good; that a caucus is not a primary, but that is not the distinction the admittedly ambiguous law is making. Stated differently, that is not the interpretation Secretary Gardner is using. His metric is not primary or caucus, it is attention or no/little attention. If a contest in conflict with New Hampshire is going to garner attention -- attention that could draw from New Hampshire's impact if held to soon after the primary in the Granite state -- then it is a similar contest. If a primary or caucus garners no or little attention, the contest is deemed not similar. There is a reason Gardner was not threatened by the caucuses on January 5 -- in between Iowa and New Hampshire -- in Wyoming in 2008. Sure, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson visited, but not often and not often enough that the national press was willing to follow. Gardner's verdict? Not similar.

But Nevada's Republican caucuses are similar to New Hampshire. The Republican caucuses in the Silver state are an RNC-sanctioned contest. Candidates have already invested there -- perhaps not to the level of Iowa or New Hampshire or Florida, but they are invested to some degree. There is a debate there next week. The governor has already made an endorsement. Nevada matters in a way that Wyoming did not. It is or has been deemed a similar contest. Nevada too closely on the heels of the New Hampshire primary lessens the impact of the primary's results. New Hampshire would not resonate in the way that the seven day buffer in the law is intended to protect.

This is a dead issue, folks. He is the judge and jury on "similar election" and he has already ruled. Gardner ain't budgin'.

And here is why:

The candidates are either independently, or based on some other motivating factor, pledging not campaign in Nevada if the Republican Party there does not change the January 14 caucus date to allow New Hampshire to schedule a primary in 2012. First it was Jon Huntsman and now Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich have joined in. We have not seen a pledge drive like this since the 1996 cycle when all of the major Republican candidates but Steve Forbes either pledged or did not campaign in Delaware when the First state's primary was -- like Nevada -- the Saturday after New Hampshire (or in this case the Saturday after a date New Hampshire is eyeing).

As FHQ explained last week, back in the olden days -- you know, in the 1990s and before -- any time states would schedule primaries or caucuses that conflicted with New Hampshire law, there would inevitably be a pledge -- unofficial or otherwise -- on the part of the candidates to stay out of the offending state. The message: New Hampshire is a known quantity. Winning there matters, or has proven to matter. The Delawares and Nevadas of the world are trying to do what only New Hampshire can, but they can't. That is the New Hampshire perspective. I know. I know. People will argue with me until they are blue in the face that other states could do as good or better than New Hampshire at leading off the process. I'm not here to debate that. It is a reality. And the candidate behavior backs that up. Their actions -- and no it isn't yet every one of the candidates this time -- endorses the notion of New Hampshire holding a special place in the process.

Incidentally, this sort of behavior underlines the type and potential effectiveness of the penalty the DNC tried out in 2008 -- the one I alluded to in my piece over at Crystal Ball today.

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astrojob said...

Obvious question for next week's debate in Nevada:

"Will you compete in the January 14th caucuses? If not, then why are you here?"

Of course, if the Nevada GOP was really bold, they could make pledging to compete in the caucus a requirement for appearing in the debate. Does Newt Gingrich value the sanctity of the New Hampshire primary more than he values getting face time on TV?

Josh Putnam said...

Hmmm, I didn't think about that from Nevada's perspective. My thought was that the candidates could hit them twice and threaten to boycott the debate as well. That's all about the timing for both sets of players.

The candidates would have an easier time of boycotting the debate than the NVGOP banning them. I would imagine it would be more difficult for the party to change the debate rules without also gaining at least some consent from their media partners first. It isn't impossible but there are more fetters on their end than on the candidates'.