Monday, April 30, 2012

Question Time: Big [Early] States & Future Primary Calendars

Via the comments:
Is there a movement afoot in either party to move one of the big swing states (OH PN, ect.[sic]) either to inside the "carve out" category or close to it? If not (as I suspect) why do you think that is? I mean there would be a lot of benefits to the party not just for the nomination but also the general election.
The simplest answer is "I don't know."

However, that is mainly because I'm iffy about the word "movement". Is there any movement? No, but there are factions/people within the decision-making bodies in both the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee that have voiced or seemed supportive of such ideas (albeit more for selfish, state-specific reasons rather than for reasons of general election electoral benefits). Beyond that, though, I don't know. But I do have a few educated/informed impressions.

The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee mostly punted -- and rightly so with an incumbent seeking re-election1 -- on rules changes in 2010. The overwhelming sentiment that prevailed in the Washington meeting that FHQ attended was that no one on the committee wanted to rock the boat. There was, as I'm sure there inevitably is at these things, some brief discussion of the early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. I say that there are inevitably discussions along these lines, but I left with the feeling that this was among the least contentious, shallowest dives into the question of early states in quite a while. Some members harped on the idea of reshuffling the deck at the front of the calendar, but that went nowhere. What did move the needle ever so slightly among the group or at least enough among them was a process similar to what guided the commission that tweaked the Democratic delegate selection rules prior to 2008. This was the group that essentially held auditions for states that wanted to move into the, what the Democrats call, pre-window period. This was the point at which Nevada and South Carolina were added to the mix. The Rules and Bylaws Committee left it at that in 2010; open the early calendar up to a couple of additional states from among a group that applies.

If I had to guess now, I would say that Florida and Michigan have a leg up on the competition. Now, that's counterintuitive, right? It was after all four short years ago that Florida and Michigan threatened to rip the Democratic Party apart over how both states' delegates would be counted. But the simple truth of the matter is that both are already there. That is almost more important than the "Hey, those two states could be swing states in the general election" argument. This is a big deal: being able to move the primary or caucus. Florida will likely be there regardless. It does not seem likely that the Florida legislature will change hands -- moving from Republican control to Democratic -- any time within the 2012-15 window which means that about two-thirds of the date-setting process will rest with the Republicans.2 Unless the RNC comes up with a penalty that actually deters rogue states from scheduling primaries out of compliance with the national party delegate selection rules, Florida is very likely to go early again. Republican actors in the state are very serious -- it seems -- to make Florida the fifth contest at the latest on the calendar. Is there any sense in potentially re-fighting 2008/Florida again? I wouldn't think so. The Michigan primary is already scheduled, according to state law, for the fourth Tuesday in February.  Again, why fight it?

The one wildcard to keep an eye on Arizona. The Arizona primary is already scheduled for the same date as the Michigan primary and the law there adds the flexibility for the governor to shift the date up to an earlier date. That is a problem for the, in this case, Democrats (...but the Republicans too). There will have to be some new sanctions in place to dissuade Arizona from additional moves.3 What works against Arizona is that "the West" is already represented by Nevada. Florida fills the "big state" role. Michigan is the "blue collar" or "labor" or "midwestern" state. Arizona has no such similar role. But it can argue that it might be electorally important to the party in the general election in the future.

On the Republican side, there was little discussion of overturning the early calendar apple cart in the Scottsdale RNC meeting recently. Additionally, there was no talk -- at least that I heard -- of putting together a commission to re-examine the RNC delegate selection rules outside of the convention as was the case with the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee (2009-10). This was the first, and perhaps only, foray the party has or will make into the midstream delegate rules changing arena in the post-reform era.

But the RNC is faced with a similar quandary to what the Democrats will encounter: How to keep states in line, or more to the point from breaking in line? That is the key question for both parties. The RNC, I think, realizes that the same three states -- Arizona, Florida and Michigan -- present it with a certain immovable object problem; one that cannot be remedied without some form of actual deterrent.4 What that penalty is, though, is unknown as of now, but I'm sure will be discussed in the months leading up to the Tampa convention.

Will there be additions to the carve out states in 2016? I think that is a safe bet at this time? Will those additions make sense in terms of why they were added? Sure. States will be added mostly because the alternative of not adding them is counterproductive to the parties. Are the states best positioned to take advantage of those new carve out spots potentially important in a general election for both parties? Coincidentally enough, yes, but only coincidentally enough. If the parties wanted to actually confront such a coordination problem (putting together with states and state parties a primary calendar that paid electoral dividends in November) on their own, they would be hard-pressed to muster the willingness much less the ability to actually pull that off.

Uphill sledding...

I should take a moment to mention that I will be taking part in a workshop at the Harvard Institute of Politics in May that will bring together folks from the Rules Committees in both major parties in addition to folks from the National Association of Secretaries of State and National Conference of State Legislatures. Selfishly, I hope to get a better picture on what is happening in both parties concerning the rules for 2016, but I also hope a productive dialog is started/continued on the nomination process and the limit to which it can in reality be reformed given all the competing interests.

1 Folks have been persuasive in arguing that if a party is going to make changes, the best time -- or the time with the least number of potential conflicts within a party -- is when the stakes are low. You know, when a reasonably popular incumbent is seeking re-election; an incumbent who has a party rallying behind him like Obama had in 2010 and has now.

2 State law now gives the speaker of the Florida House, the president of the Florida Senate and the governor three selections each to the committee that sets the date. If Governor Scott is not re-elected in 2014, Democrats will be able to muster four selections to the committee. No one member-naming authority can name more than two members of his or her own party to the committee. The speaker and the president would have to name two Democrats and the presumed Democratic governor would name two additional Democrats. But that is just four out of nine slots; not enough for Democrats to gain control of the process.

3 Of course, it should be noted that the Democratic Party has for the last two cycles now had a sanction on the books that penalizes not only the states for going to early, but any candidates who campaign in violating states as well. States move up for attention and if that attention is affected by candidates/media not showing up, then there is little utility in moving forward. ...or at least that will be the test in 2016 should the Democrats stand pat with their current penalties regime.

4 The same is true of some of these non-binding caucus states that have been able to skirt Republican rules most noticeably in 2012 (...but the issue was around in 2008 too). That is a different story or one for a different time anyway.

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