Thursday, January 5, 2012

[2012 Presidential Primary Calendar in Review] Part 2: How We Got Here -- The Motivation

This is the second part of a three part series on the development of the 2012 presidential primary calendar. Part one provided the legislation that was introduced within state legislatures during the 2011 sessions to shift the dates on which the various states hold their presidential primaries.

Let's explore the factors that motivated state-level actors to change -- or want to change in some cases -- the dates of the presidential primaries and caucuses, shall we?

The rules
The single biggest factor affecting the 2012 primary calendar was the rules. As FHQ has discussed more times than I can even begin to try and link back to, the two national parties informally coordinated the basic skeleton of a calendar in the midst of shaping their respective rules governing the 2012 delegate selection process. The formula was simple: Bring the process back from the brink of seeping into the year before the presidential election by mandating a February starting point for the four so-called carve-out states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- and setting the first Tuesday in March as the earliest point any other state could hold a delegate selection event.

As the entirety of this blog in 2011 will attest, it didn't really work out that way. Arizona, Michigan and then Florida forced Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina into January and Nevada up against the wall of compliance in early February. But to focus on that handful of states -- however consequential to the process -- is to turn a blind eye to the majority of the primary and caucus movement that took place in 2011. After Arkansas and Illinois fled February with legislation in 2009 and 2010 respectively, there were 20 states that had to either change election laws or state party bylaws in order to comply with the new guidelines on the timing of primaries and caucuses. Of those 20 states, 15 saw shifts backward as compared with the position they occupied on the 2008 primary calendar. Of the other five, Florida created a commission that placed the Sunshine state primary on the same date the old election law would have scheduled the primary, Minnesota's two major parties failed to collectively choose a date before March 1, 2011 and triggered the first Tuesday in February date, Colorado Republicans opted for the earlier of the two dates allowed for the two major parties to hold caucuses, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer flirted with a January date before settling on the default date for the presidential primary called for in state law and Michigan Republicans, citing other primaries on the same date, kept its primary on the fourth Tuesday in February date called for in state law. Every other primary state -- and one caucus state (Hawaii) with a date specified in state party bylaws -- took a step back.

[NOTE: With rare exception, this just includes primary states where the presidential primary dates is outlined in state election law. There are also a handful of caucus states where the dates are dictated by state election law or specifically spelled out in party bylaws. The above does not include caucus states where the dates may have changed 2008-to-2012, but not because of an alteration to state party bylaws. FHQ will pick up on those states below.]

Additionally, several other states that did not have to make changes to comply with the new national party rules on delegate selection opted to move back.

In most cases, the rules are a necessary and sufficient explanation for why states shifted back, but those guidelines do not completely explicate just how far each state decided to move back. For that, let's look a bit deeper at some additional factors.

Partisan concerns
FHQ has made this point before, but the distance traveled from the 2008 primary calendar to 2012 for most states can best be explained by partisan reasons. In short, Democratic-controlled states that moved, moved back further than Republican-controlled states. In some ways this is related to the rules.  Democratic-controlled states (see most of the states now occupying the April space on the calendar), spurred on by the rules granting them bonus delegates for settling in on April or later dates and the fact that there is nothing on the line in the race for the Democratic nomination. As an aside, it also worth noting that there was at least one report that the DNC was urging states -- particularly northeastern, Democratic-controlled states that might otherwise be strongholds for a Romney campaign in the Republican nomination race -- to move to later dates. By extension, that would have theoretically made it more difficult (or at least take longer) for Romney to wrap up the nomination by making it more likely for a more conservative candidate (someone easier for Obama to defeat in the fall) to emerge. Looking at those April states, it is hard not at least lend some credence to that Globe story.

The flip side of this is that Republican-controlled states motivated to give Republican voters in their states a voice in the nomination were motivated by the newly altered delegate selection rules to move back but only back as far as was necessary to comply with those rules. The result is that we see mostly Republican-controlled states occupying March with mostly Democratic-controlled states in April and in some cases later.

This is easier to visualize on a map.

[NOTE: Like the presidential primary calendar map, the map above bisects states where there are different dates for the contests held by the two parties. Those states left in white are states that either did not move relative to 2008 or defied the national party rules by holding January or February contests. States shaded in red are states that moved into to March dates on the calendar (predominantly Republican-controlled states), while blue states are states that shifted to April or later dates on the calendar (mostly Democratic-controlled states or state parties in the case of caucuses).]

The economy/budgetary concerns
One other driving force in the primary movement witnessed between 2008 and 2012 was that state-level financial distress stretched to the implementation of state election law. Stated slightly differently, states, because they were attempting to stay out of the red, more readily considered consolidating the presidential primary elections with the primary election for other offices or canceling the presidential primary outright as a means of cutting spending. This is or is not a big factor depending upon how you want to view the movement. In terms of the number of states where budgetary constraints played a role, their impact was limited. Kansas and Washington cancelled their presidential primaries and Alabama, California and New Jersey consolidated their presidential primaries with those primaries for state and local offices.1

That is not an expansive list on its face. However, the sizes of the delegations combined with the extent to which those three primary states moved back had a significant impact on the underlying delegate calculus of the Republican race. Alabama uprooted both its presidential primary (February in 2008) and primaries for state and local offices (traditionally in June) and consolidated the two elections in March. California and New Jersey, on the other hand, moved only the presidential primary; shifting them from February all the way to the end of the calendar in June. The California move alone fundamentally changes the delegate acquisition calculus. It fairly significantly shifted the point at which any one candidate can surpass the 50% plus one delegate barrier, much less the point when 50% of the delegates will have been allocated. In 2008, that latter distinction was met on Super Tuesday (February 5). The point at which 50% of the delegates -- regardless of which candidate they are bound to -- will not be hit in the Republican race until late March in the 2012 race.

Depending on how one measures impact on this front, budgetary concerns had small to medium role in the 2012 primary movement. It pales in comparison to the overarching rules or the underlying partisan motivations, yet for the first time in FHQ's memory the finances behind implementing presidential primary elections was talked about in a number of states and actually greatly factored into the calculus of a limited number of states and their decision-making calculus.

[NOTE: This is a phenomenon that is limited to primary states where state governments tasked with setting the dates could be motivated by the savings associated with combining the presidential primary with another separate primary election. Caucus states, where the decision to set the date rests with the state party, will cost the party the same amount no matter what date is chosen. There is rarely or never an option to combine it with another caucus or party function.]

The final factor to account for in the total overall primary and caucus movement on the 2012 presidential primary calendar was legal challenges to redrawn congressional district lines. Legal challenges to both a perceived vote suppression law and then the law containing new US House district boundaries -- both laws that contained provisions shifting the date of the presidential primary -- had the Ohio presidential primary all over the place for much of 2011. At various points, the presidential primary in the Buckeye state was in March, May and June before finally settling in right where the primary would have been before the effort to alter the date was begun back in the spring. Ohio, then, was a noisy non-move. Texas, though, looked to hold down the same first Tuesday in March date that it occupied and shared with Ohio in 2008. Court challenges to the Republican-drawn congressional districts forced the traditionally consolidated primary in the Lone Star state back by four weeks to the first Tuesday in April in late December 2011.

All told, 32 states/state parties moved back their primaries and caucuses in 2012 relative to their calendar positions in 2008. And while there are exceptions (see primary states Texas and Wisconsin and caucus states like Colorado (D), Utah (D) and Maine (D)), the amount of movement appears to be driven most by intra-state partisan control while budgetary and legal issues played a secondary role in the formation of the primary calendar. Obviously the overall movement back is unusual given the frontloading trend witnessed in the post-reform era; a process that culminated with the 2008 calendar where had most of the action (number of contests) pushed into the first five weeks of the year. That is not the case in 2012. The contours of the primary calendar are much more like 1976 than they are 2008. Given a competitive race in 2012, that could create a longer period before a nominee is identified. However, as much of the post-reform era has demonstrated -- assisted by an increasingly frontloaded series of calendars -- early knockouts are still very much possible. (see Norrander 2000)

1 The cancelation of presidential primaries in Kansas and Washington requires a more nuanced discussion. In neither case was that decision all that consequential. In Kansas, the April primary called for in state law has not been allocated funding from the Kansas state legislature since 1992. The cancelation of the primary is a quadrennial rite going on for two decades now. The decision to cancel the primary in Washington was predicated on the past practice by both parties to either not use of barely used the presidential primary as a means of allocating delegates. Washington Democrats historically have not used the primary and in 2008 the Republican Party in Washington used both a primary and a caucus to allocate approximately 50% of their apportioned delegates. One quarter of the actual delegate allocation across both parties is not -- at least not in the eyes of Washington legislature -- a wise way to spend $10 million. Thus they scrapped the primary for 2012.

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